War Against Parents
September 18, 1998
David Gergen, editor-at-large of U.S. News & World Report, talks with economist Sylvia Hewlitt and Cornel West, a professor at Harvard University. They're authors of "The War Against Parents, What We Can Do for America's Beleaguered Moms and Dads."
DAVID GERGEN: Sylvia and Cornel, welcome. You write in your new book that there is a war against parents in this country that is being conducted by corporations, by the government, and by the culture, itself. What are you talking about here?
CORNEL WEST, Author, "The War Against Parents:" We want to acknowledge the ways in which parents are on the battlefield, and by acknowledging those ways in which they're on the battlefield, they'll highlight their heroic actions. Parenting is the ultimate non-market activity, caring, loving, sacrificing, servicing. In the workplace, managerial greed has run amok, parents, therefore, underpaid, overworked, government abdicating responsibility, parents unhinged, and culture dishonoring, devaluing parents.
SYLVIA HEWLITT, Author, "The War Against Parents:" David, just think of what's been going on in the workplace. We all know that there's some good news recently. I mean, for the last five, six years we've had this huge boom in America. But the group that has not benefited at all is families with children. They've seen their income go down. And I guess what we see out there - that there's been a great deal of trickle up of income to managers, to older people, and as a result, young child-raising adults are being forced to take two, three jobs, to keep their show on the road. One of the most poignant figures in this book is that there are now six million American households where two adults hold four jobs in order to keep things going. So there's a great deal of economic pressure on parents, and a great deal of time pressure. They really feel starved of time with their kids.
DAVID GERGEN: Now, Sylvia, are you also making the point, in addition to losing the time with their kids, there's less of that, that they have fewer facilities where they can place their kids while they're away?
SYLVIA HEWLITT: Right. We have a tremendous dearth of quality child care. We have very little in the way of after school care. We know that our many households are empty until 7, 8 o'clock at night. There are - just to give you one figure - seven million seven-year-olds in self-care after school. And as you know, these dangling, abandoned kids get into trouble. We all know that the great peak in juvenile crime is at 4 o'clock in the afternoon. It's not in the middle of the night. It's when you have all kinds of young adolescents basically unsupervised with no good niche in their community, in those early afternoon, late afternoon hours.
DAVID GERGEN: Well, Cornel, what I find puzzling here is that we have much more conversation now in the corporate community about corporate responsibility toward employees. Are the corporations and government just not catching up, are we going backwards, or is it mostly headlines without progress? What's really happening?
CORNEL WEST: I think on the one hand you have a deep concern in Washington about the ways in which, given the economic boom on the one hand, and even given the fragility of that boom at times, we still don't have a decent wage. That is to say you don't have a wage where persons can work full-time and not live in poverty. And so the White House has been very interested in pushing up that minimum wage to $7 and that's one of the recommendations we have here. Same is true in terms of tightening the safety net, same is true in terms of the paid, job-protected leave that we call for over against the unpaid leave that was written into law in 1993.
DAVID GERGEN: Sylvia, what about the maternal - parental leave laws? I gather you feel that they are not covering enough people and a growing number of women are not covered.
SYLVIA HEWLITT: Well, you know, it's a very good example of how there is this big gap between our rhetoric and the reality of that. We made a whole kind of song and dance about the parenting leave bill in 1993, and, in fact, it was a big step forward. But just remember that it was unpaid leave. A lot of - both men and women can't afford to take it. And right now, 31 percent of working women don't have access to that leave, because they work for small companies. And -
DAVID GERGEN: And small companies are not covered.
SYLVIA HEWLITT: And this bill exempted all employers that have fewer than 50 employees. Just compare that to Europe or to Japan or to Australia or Canada. The average parenting leave in these countries is now five months at full pay. And no matter what crises these countries run into, they realize this is a very good investment, because, you know, if a kid is allowed to bond emotionally and in other ways with both parents at the beginning of life, the ground is really set for a childhood that is both on track and happy. And all of the experts tell us that. But in this country you can find three-week-old babies in daycare centers because parents do not have the right to be with that child.
DAVID GERGEN: Cornel, you do say in the book that you think parents are as devoted to the parents -- as to their children as parents had been in the past and yet the number and yet the number of young fathers who walk away from their children is at historically high levels.
CORNEL WEST: Yes, that's true. I think a number of the fathers who walk away actually do have deep ties, but there are some institutional policies, like AFDC, that made it difficult. Some of the fathers who walk away are simply irresponsible. And so we have to acknowledge that. But fathers have been irresponsible in the past. And we know that parenting does matter. A motherless child, a fatherless child has a very different plight than that of a child who received deep love and support from Mom and Dad, as we did, as I did, as Sylvia did.
SYLVIA HEWLITT: You know, David, we spend some time in this book sharing our childhoods, because, despite the fact I grew up in the Welsh mining valleys and Cornel grew up in Sacramento, we both came from, you know, strong, blue collar, working families that gave really gifts of enormous attention and love to the young folks in those families, and clearly, we've benefited from that enormously. But we also share our adult struggles to be a good dad, a good mom in a society which really demeans, undermines, degrades the nurturing act in such profound ways these days. And I think that is a very difficult thing that we all are tousling with as parents today. I have four kids. My youngest is just one year's old, so I'm nearly out there on the front lines, really experiencing how hard it is to be a good parent, no matter how I guess fervently you try, and there's all kinds of stories in this book of heroes and heroines, because I think there are all kinds of folks who are putting extraordinary energy into the sacrifice and dedication that are needed to be a good parent. But it is very difficult in America in 1998.
DAVID GERGEN: Sylvia, you have a parental bill of rights here in the book. Briefly describe what the major elements of it are.
SYLVIA HEWLITT: The parent's bill of rights is about some intensely practical measures that can be taken to support the nurturers of our society, and they go from expanding parenting leave to increasing the minimum wage to much more symbolic things, for instance, giving priority seating on our buses to parents. I mean, you try traveling on a bus in New York City with an infant and you find that there's no place for you, no place to put the stroller, no place to sit with the kid, and yet, you know, in our buses we have learned to honor the special needs of another group, that of the elderly. And I think we should be proud of that as a society, we really find it very hard to give, I guess, pride of place to parents and small children in this society, which means that it's extremely hard, I think, to really spend a whole lot of time with your children these days. So the bill of rights both emphasizes the concrete practical measures that parents need, if they are to counsel for their kids, but it also gives more honor, dignity, and value to this business of nurturing, to this business of caring in a society which is so focused on profits and greed.
DAVID GERGEN: Thank you, Sylvia Hewlitt, and Cornel West. Thank you for joining us.
CORNEL WEST: Thank you very much. Always a pleasure.