The federal government has long been vexed by budget deficits and trade deficits. Now comes a conservative group to argue that the most pressing deficit for policy-makers to address is the "parenting" deficit.

The explosion in divorce, non-marital births, single-parent households and dual wage-earner families over the past generation has meant that parents, on average, spend 17 hours a week with their children, down from 30 hours a week in 1965, according to an article published yesterday in the Heritage Foundation's Policy Review.

For today's time-stressed parents, each day is a juggling act. "When a shoe is lost, a cold car engine fails to turn over, or the baby fills his diaper just after he's been zipped into his snowsuit or the staff meeting runs late, the whole intricate schedule can unravel and fall apart," the article notes, quoting social historian Barbara Dafoe Whitehead.

The family time deficit takes its greatest toll on children raised by single parents -- about a quarter of all children, nearly triple the percentage of a generation ago. Overloaded with money-making and household tasks, single mothers spend a third less time than married mothers on primary child-care activities, according to a study by University of Maryland sociologist John Robinson. Research shows that, after adjusting for economic levels, children raised in single-parent families perform less well in school and have more physical, emotional and behavioral problems than children in two-parent families.

But even in two-parent families, millions of children are casualties of diminished parental time, missing out on the "large doses of custom-made love" that Harvard's child development expert Burton White says is the key to healthy nurturing.

Society is seen as a loser, too. When adults put self-fulfillment ahead of family obligation, these values are passed on to their offspring, the article says. "The result is that we have a generation of kids who are growing up to become narcissistic adults, with their own problems starting and raising families," Harvard child psychiatrist Robert Coles said in an interview.

The article, subtitled "So Many Bills, So Little Time," attributes the parenting deficit in part to economic stress on families with children, which have seen their standards of living stagnate for two decades, and in part to the "unbridled careerism" of men and women. "It appears that workaholism and family dereliction have become equal-opportunity diseases, striking mothers as much as fathers," the article quotes Karl Zinsmeister of the American Enterprise Institute.

The article's author -- William Mattox Jr., policy analyst for the Family Research Council -- acknowledged limits to what public policy can do to address these issues. "Government can't compel people to eat a family meal together every night at 6 p.m.," he said in a speech yesterday at the Heritage Foundation.

Rather, he called for tax breaks to families with young children, including a steep increase in the dependent tax exemption to $7,000, roughly the level it would be if its value hadn't been eroded over the past four decades by inflation. He also suggested that employers make it easier for employees to work at home, and give a preference -- similar to the benefit to veterans -- to job applicants who join or return to the work force after extended absences for parenting.

He opposed government spending on day-care programs, arguing they "stack the deck" against families with stay-at-home parents. While this remains a key point of dispute between liberals and conservatives, Mattox said there has been ideological convergence in recent years around the notion that the best way to strengthen families is to put more dollars in their pockets.

Last fall, the Progressive Policy Institute, a left-of-center think tank, published a monograph that made the same point. One of its co-authors, William Galston, said yesterday he thought he would have to "run for my life" for deviating "from what was taken to be Democratic Party orthodoxy," but "the reception has been excellent."

Still, Galston said he is not optimistic that the emerging intellectual consensus will produce a dramatic policy breakthrough. "With the budget deficit and the recession, the chances have to be rated fairly low," he said.