Posts Tagged ‘ 2012 election ’

What You Didn’t Hear in the Debate: How Our Next President Could Affect American Fertility (OPINION)

Thursday, October 4th, 2012

Over the next few months, the editors of Parents.com will report on hot-button election issues that American families face today, from healthcare to education. In the spirit of offering diverse perspectives on the election, we’ve chosen three moms from across the political spectrum to be guest bloggers on Parents News Now. Each one of them will offer a unique take on the topics that they–and you!–are most passionate about. (Read the entire blog series.)

By Sharon Lerner

Even if you stayed awake through the policy blizzard that was last night’s debate, you didn’t hear a word about the dramatically different future the candidates can bring about for women and families. So I’m going to take this opportunity to bypass the rehash of statistics, awkward facial expressions, and possible implications for Big Bird– and go right to the big picture for families.

It’s not just that Mitt Romney thinks the Supreme Court should overturn Roe v. Wade, while Obama is clearly pro-choice. Or that the Republican candidate would reverse the coverage of contraception under health reform – a step forward brought to us by the President himself.

These clear differences on reproductive issues have already convinced plenty of American women to cast their ballots for Obama in November. But there are other differences between the candidates that will have a huge impact on reproduction and the daily lives of American families. And, at first, at least, these are policies that seem to have little in common with the hot-button war-on-women issues.

To understand the other way our next president could affect the growth – or decline – of the number of American families, it helps to look abroad. Much of the world has been experiencing a rapid drop in their fertility rates. Nearly half the global population now lives in nations that have fertility rates below replacement level, or 2.1 children on average per woman. But the problem is worst in rich countries, more than 100 of which are now under replacement level, and thus facing concerns about the size of their militaries, work forces, and tax bases.

Several factors fuel this worldwide decline, including greater access to birth control and later marriage. But perhaps the most widely embraced explanation is that the particular burdens women face in the work force make it harder to both have children and a job. Thus, as more and more women work outside the home throughout much of the world, the number of children they have has dropped. It makes sense: If becoming a mother requires a woman to take a huge financial and professional hit, she will be far less likely do it.

Up until recently, the US has been the notable exception to the global fertility pattern. For much of the past 30 years, the average number of children American women had held remarkably steady. Although more and more women began working during this time, the high fertility levels of certain groups –particularly Latino immigrants–seemed to make up for any decline in the rest of us.

But this year, the US fertility rate hit a low not seen for 25 years. While the average number of births per woman was 2.12 in 2007, it’s just fallen to 1.87. The downturn is, no doubt, in part a response to unemployment and the flagging economy. Yet, as the Population Reference Bureau points out, it could also “signal a longer-term drop in life-time fertility.” In other words, this could be the moment we joint the rest of the developed world in the struggle to maintain our population size.

While the media have been exploring why this dip in our fertility is happening now, a better question might be: why hasn’t it happened before this point? After all, we’re one of just three countries worldwide that doesn’t provide paid maternity leave. We have few flexible work options, no national paid sick leave law, and no system of decent, affordable childcare. So compared to women in other nations, Americans are not just having lots of kids, we’re doing it while working a lot in fairly inflexible jobs, with very little help.

This double duty has taken a huge toll: Working mothers in the U.S. sleep a mere six hours a night on average. Our depression rates are high, our free time almost nonexistent. If our collective commitment to both motherhood and work has helped us soldier through this kind of adversity to this point, no one can sustain this kind of overdrive forever. It was inevitable that American mothers would run out of gas at some point – and, judging from the new fertility numbers, our moment has arrived.

How can we reverse the trend? In addition to pushing toward a sunnier economic future, we might take a lesson from some of the many countries that have experienced the fertility plunge before we did, at least 45 of which have already instituted policies that ease a woman’s ability to hold a job and raise children simultaneously. In the European Union, for instance, all countries require employers to grant parity in pay and benefits to part-time workers — allowing women more flexibility in their work lives. And in Scandinavia, extensive public child-care systems offer a slot to virtually every child under 5 whose parents work.

The hope is that the extra support will nudge women toward having bigger families – and, at least in some places, it’s already working. Experts have linked changes in Sweden’s birthrate to paid-maternity-leave policies. And according to sociologist Ronald Rindfuss, Norwegian women who live in towns with more day-care slots available have more children and become mothers earlier.

Here, the next American president has his work cut out for him. If he wants to give true support to families, he’ll have to pass paid family leave and paid sick day laws; spend way more on providing and improving childcare; and ensure that parents have more flexible work options. It’s worth noting that Obama passed health care reform, which was a huge boon to children and families. And that his ability to pass anything has been constrained by oppositional Republicans in Congress. For his part, Romney said practically nothing about such supports. Thus far, his advice to working mothers seems to be: stay home.

If American families do get the help we need, we might see an uptick in our fertility rate, too. And, perhaps more important, we’ll have a happier, less stressed, and better rested nation of parents.

Read more opinions from Sharon Lerner

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Are Romney and Obama Talking About the Things That Matter to Parents?

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012

Over the next few months, the editors of Parents.com will report on hot-button election issues that American families face today, from healthcare to education. In the spirit of offering diverse perspectives on the election, we’ve chosen three moms from across the political spectrum to be guest bloggers on Parents News Now. Each one of them will offer a unique take on the topics that they–and you!–are most passionate about. (Read the entire blog series.)

By Amy Julia Becker

My day as a mom doesn’t involve much thought about our government. I think about packing lunches for school, wiping counters, getting our kids dressed in clothes that are somewhat appropriate for the weather outside. I think about how many minutes of television William (age 4) has already watched today. I think about whether I’m being consistent in my discipline and expectations for Marilee (20 months), our third child, who is rather inclined to get away with, well, everything. I think about how Penny (age 6 ½), who has Down syndrome, is doing in school–will she control her hands, will she eat her carrot sticks at lunch, will she make friends? I think about the dozens of emails in my inbox, our cat with hyperthyroidism, the rusty spot on the door of the minivan that really needs attention.

I don’t think much about tax policy, job creation, teachers unions, national defense, or public health. And I suspect that neither Romney nor Obama spends much time thinking about chores and report cards and rusty minivans. I certainly hope they don’t.

Although I don’t spend my days thinking about the government, I do have concerns about how the outcome of our next election will affect my family. At a luncheon hosted by CNN and Parents last June, I was part of a group of moms that discussed various election issues. It was clear that many of us care about having a president who can fix the educational system, address environmental hazards, and implement economic policies that enable job creation. Similarly, in a survey conducted by the Center for the Next Generation and Parents, “74 percent of parents say the government is not doing enough for children.” The authors of the report detailing the same survey called upon Obama and Romney to address the “concerns of parents” in tomorrow’s debate about domestic policy.

Neither Romney nor Obama has made educational reform or other issues related to kids the center of their campaigns. Both have instead made the economy the focal point of this election. They have different proposals for addressing economic woes–Romney follows his party line in calling for keeping both taxes and government spending low, although he is vague about the specifics of how to do so. Obama promotes the agenda of the past four years–raising taxes on the top income brackets and continuing to spend as an act of financial stimulus while “trimming fat” from the national budget. And although parents might complain that neither politician has focused enough on issues related to children, economic issues are what matter most to parents right now.

The recent survey showed that “91 percent of parents believe that the lack of jobs that pay enough to support a family is a serious problem facing America’s children,” and, in a departure from historical norms, “When asked to choose between an extra $10,000 per year or an extra hour every day of quality time with their children, two-thirds choose the money.” In other words, the biggest concern parents face is the economy, exactly the topic both candidates highlight every day on the campaign trail.

When it comes to our presidential candidates, the problem doesn’t lie with an unwillingness to address the concerns of parents and children. The problem lies with an unwillingness, on the part of the candidates and the American public, to address the real problems within our national budget. As Michael Grunwald recently wrote in a cover article for TIME (“One Nation on Welfare”), “The 2012 election is shaping up as a debate over Big Government, but it is only loosely tethered to the reality of Big Government. The vast majority of federal spending goes to defense, health care, and Social Security plus interest payments on the debt we’ve run up paying for defense, health care, and Social Security. Nondefense discretionary spending–Washingtonese for “everything else,” from the FBI to the TSA to the center for grape genetics–amounts to only 12 percent of the budget.”

The candidates don’t need to be talking first and foremost about education reform or child welfare. They don’t need to be thinking about the things parents are thinking about on a day to day basis. But in order to address the needs of the nation, which very much includes the needs of parents and of the next generation, the candidates need to do more than pontificate about reducing the deficit and providing sound economic policy.

They need instead to articulate reductions in defense spending and policy changes to our longstanding and beneficial entitlement programs–Medicare and Social Security. The boldness to ensure security and health for the next generation of children rests upon conversations that have very little immediate connection to my car that needs to go to the shop or Penny’s behavioral chart at school or another box of macaroni and cheese. I’ll be tuning in on Wednesday night to see if either Obama or Romney has any concrete solutions to the economic problems that concern us all.

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I Won’t Back Down from Civil Rights… or from Teachers’ Unions

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

Over the next few months, the editors of Parents.com will report on hot-button election issues that American families face today, from healthcare to education. In the spirit of offering diverse perspectives on the election, we’ve chosen three moms from across the political spectrum to be guest bloggers on Parents News Now. Each one of them will offer a unique take on the topics that they–and you!–are most passionate about. (Read the entire blog series.)

By Nancy French

When I dropped my daughter off at an inner city Philadelphia School for kindergarten, I tried to keep my emotions in check. It was the first time in five years I’d been separated from my daughter, but I didn’t want to cry in front of the other latte-sipping parents. After all, the school looked welcoming enough, and the teachers were kind. But I really got a lump in my throat when they divided up the kids by class, and I counted the little heads in my daughter’s first kindergarten class.

40.

There’s nothing quite like the feeling of helplessness a mom feels when sending a child into a less than ideal situation. But mothers all across the nation feel that trepidation every single day, because American public schools are failing in almost every measurable way. This was dramatically demonstrated when Chicago teachers — who make on average $74,839 per year — demanded more pay, refused to lengthen their already short school day, and didn’t want evaluations tied to performance.  And this when 80 percent of Chicago eighth graders don’t meet reading or math grade level requirement and 40 percent drop out before graduating.

Some parents have given up on public school for the greener (and more expensive) grass of private schools. Others have opted for homeschooling. But a new movie called “Won’t Back Down,” explores what parents and teachers at public schools can do to help change the public schools from within.  The film, starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, definitely makes moviegoers feel –- in the gut –- what we know in our heads: far too many schools aren’t teaching subjects, delivering reasonable results, or prioritizing students.

The movie was screened for audiences at the Republican and Democratic national conventions. In spite of its bi-partisan rollout, however, it’s already been called the most controversial movie of the year. In fact, the president of the American Federation of Teachers has condemned the movie as “divisive” and saying it “resorts to falsehoods and anti-union stereotypes,” protestors have picketed outside screening locations, and the President himself was warily warned of the screening at the DNC.

Why all the fuss?

First of all the movie popularizes the relatively unknown “parent trigger laws.” Gyllenhaal portrays a struggling Pittsburgh mom Jamie Fitzpatrick whose dyslexic child receives no basic instruction at school. Together, she and Davis’s character, a veteran teacher, try to take over their failing public school by using a relatively unknown law, which allows parents and teachers of failing schools to change it.

Only four states have these laws — California, Mississippi, Texas, and Louisiana — and the details vary from state to state. However, they generally allow for the removal of ineffective teachers, ousting of a terrible principal, and even converting the school into a charter school. Though this has never successfully been done, undoubtedly this movie will cause many concerned parents to bring these initiatives to the attention of their state lawmakers. Originally proposed by a former Clinton White House strategist, these “parent triggers” are now about as popular with teachers’ unions as a head lice epidemic.

In fact, the second reason for the controversy is that the main antagonists are teachers’ unions, who repeatedly attack, block, and malign the efforts of hard working parents and teachers. (I experienced some cognitive dissonance while watching the movie. Have unions — who’ve given well over $35 million exclusively to Democratic candidates since 1989 — ever been negatively portrayed in major motion movies?)

Some liberals activists have said this movie is merely a piece of right wing propaganda, but not so fast. The movie’s director, Daniel Barnz, is a self-described “liberal Democrat” and told the Huffington Post, “I think that people are a bit tired of the finger-pointing and scapegoating within this world. I think they just want to see a way in which our schools can improve. That’s the spirit of the film.” He also told the L.A. Times, “I think of this movie as a David and Goliath story and for me, it’s a multifaceted Goliath made up of many things that are represented in the film: parental apathy, an incompetent principal, a dispassionate teacher. Part of it is the teachers union.”

In other words, sometimes well-meaning, Democratic-voting teachers’ unions actually enable and protect the failing schools. Barnz says he supports — yet is also critical of — the unions.  And he isn’t alone. Former teacher and current Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — who’s the head of the Democratic National Convention — favors holding teachers accountable, having more school choice, and was part of a panel which discussed the movie at the DNC.

The support from both sides of the aisle shows this movie isn’t about politics — or it shouldn’t be no matter how much the unions complain.  Rather, it’s about basic human rights and decency. Mitt Romney claimed this as “the civil rights issue of our time,” no doubt because of the inordinate number of African American children affected by urban schools’ failure rates.

Of course, not all urban public schools fail. McCall Elementary in Center City Philadelphia, where my daughter was squeezed into a kindergarten class of 40, actually listened to the parents’ pleas. Within one month, they’d added another class and it turned out to be one of my daughter’s best school years. It just took a little parental involvement, a school which held itself accountable to certain standards, and the willingness to honestly address problems. In other words, my daughter was fortunate enough to attend a school built around educating children, not protecting even the worst teachers’ jobs and benefits.

There’s a poignant scene in “Won’t Back Down” when Gyllenhaal’s character asks an uncaring principal, “Have you heard about those mothers who lift one-ton trucks off their babies? They’re nothing compared to me.”

It’s time for the mothers of America to get angry about the state of public schools, because the lifetime weight of a bad education can feel a lot heavier than one ton.

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Why Parents Need the Next President to Look at Europe’s Policies (OPINION)

Wednesday, September 19th, 2012

Over the next few months, the editors of Parents.com will report on hot-button election issues that American families face today, from healthcare to education. In the spirit of offering diverse perspectives on the election, we’ve chosen three moms from across the political spectrum to be guest bloggers on Parents News Now. Each one of them will offer a unique take on the topics that they–and you!–are most passionate about. (Read the entire blog series.)

By Sharon Lerner

President Obama can’t say anything nice about Europe. If he makes any reference to the continent or their family-friendly policies he’s a socialist–or, as Romney put it back in January, someone who “wants to turn America into a European-style entitlement society.”

Romney’s take has been not just that Obama’s a Europe-lover who cares about the needy (read: a pansy), but that any association with the continental way of doing things necessarily involves a dissing of our own. Thus his cynical applause line: “This President takes his inspiration from the capitals of Europe, we look to the cities and small towns of America.”

Now, through a recently released recording that was, unbeknownst to him, made at a Republican fundraiser, Romney explains that 47 percent of America is dependent on these European-style entitlements– things like health care– and that his “job is not to worry about those people.”

Of course it’s not true that people who rely on government are pathetic, lazy shlubs–or, for that matter, that they’re in the minority. Even Romney, who is among the lucky few who can probably afford medical care whatever calamity befalls him, needs someone to build those roads he drives his Cadillac over.

Still, the potential vulnerability for further small-minded attack along the America-hating pansy lines is probably why Obama and the Democrat strategists don’t draw more attention to Europe’s vastly superior treatment of families.

There’s no reason the rest of us should let this freedom fries-style jingoism intimidate us, though. Why should we ignore countries (with a collective population of 733 million people) that have done far more to help parents spend time with their kids than we have?

This is election season. We shouldn’t be bullied into some dumbed-down dialogue over who’s got the bigger flag pin. It’s the time to interrogate our potential leaders about how they can make our lives better. It’s the time to talk about the land just across the sea where families have it way better: Europe. (Europe! Europe! Europe! Just typing it feels good.)

Take, for instance, the laws that protect European parents from getting fired for having a sick kid or taking care of their own medical problems. There’s no such protection for American parents, of course.

Then there’s the fact that part-time workers in Europe have pro-rated benefits and pay, not to mention health insurance, while American parents who want or need to work part-time often wind up in low-paying jobs with no benefits– if they can stay employed at all.

But perhaps the most infuriating contrast is on paid leave. In Europe, most new parents get at least six months of paid time off from work and, in several European countries, they get more than three years.

Because European countries have been providing paid leave for decades, we now know that this policy doesn’t just help parents, it translates into less sickness and death among babies. Two studies, one published in the Economic Journal in 2005 and another five years earlier, examined the steady climb in the amount of paid leave in 16 European countries, starting in 1969. By charting death rates against those historical changes, while controlling for potentially confounding factors, the authors were able to attribute a 20 percent dip in infant deaths to a 10-week extension in paid leave.

The truth is it’s not just Europe that treats its families way better, but much of the rest of the world. At least 145 countries have paid sick time laws. And the U.S. is one of only three countries that don’t provide paid maternity leave. Every other nation, including the People’s Republic of Congo, the very poorest in the world–provide paid leave.

Yet, the GOP, which has still somehow held onto its image as the “family values” party in some circles, shuns discussion of such humane and literally life-saving policies. And, here in the U.S., we still muddle along with a quarter of working mothers back at work within eight weeks of giving birth and one in ten–more than half a million women each year!– back in four weeks or less.

If Romney’s blindered vision plays with his wealthy donors and, perhaps, in the heartland, it doesn’t work as well on the global stage. Indeed, if Romney hates Europe, the feeling is mutual. And there’s plenty of reason to fear how he’ll be received in the rest of the world, too.

But it’s families here who should be the most concerned. To have children is to need things– unexpected time off, health care, a decent stretch to recover from birth and bond with a baby.

Yet, so far, Romney’s family policy seems to be simply that he has one (a family, that is). Purportedly he’s nice to them. Plus, as my fellow blogger points out, Ann Romney makes good pancakes.

But that does not equal a plan to improve the lot of American parents, who want supports like paid leave not because they’re lazy, dependent shlubs, but rather because they’re caring humans who need to work and would like to spend a little time with their children.

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Where are the Moms in the White House? (OPINION)

Monday, September 17th, 2012

Over the next few months, the editors of Parents.com will report on hot-button election issues that American families face today, from healthcare to education. In the spirit of offering diverse perspectives on the election, we’ve chosen three moms from across the political spectrum to be guest bloggers on Parents News Now. Each one of them will offer a unique take on the topics that they–and you!–are most passionate about. (Read the entire blog series.)

By Amy Julia Becker

The political conventions of 2012 made one thing clear–both parties want to woo the moms of America. As Lisa Belkin pointed out in the midst of the Republican convention, in his convention speech, “Mitt Romney used some version of the word ‘mom’ 14 times.” Romney’s mom-laced speech came after both Paul Ryan and Ann Romney had courted the moms of our nation as well. Ann Romney explained that the moms “always work a little harder” than anyone else, and she said there are some things the men just can’t understand. The Democrats followed with Michelle Obama’s powerful words about what it means to be an American, which ended with a proud declaration that her most important title is still “Mom in Chief.”

Both Ann Romney and Michelle Obama praised their husbands, and they painted similar portraits of family life. They described marriages that began with some degree of financial duress–the Romney’s dining room table was an ironing board, Barack Obama’s most prized possession a coffee table he had found in a dumpster. They both called upon memories of their husbands years ago to help us imagine these men without the trappings of fame and power and fortune. They extolled their husbands as fathers, and then they returned to their appeal to the mothers of this nation. There was something in those speeches for everyone, but it was the moms who were praised, and the moms who were being courted.

Moreover, both women implied that there is wisdom in being a mom, that moms know something about leadership, about values, about what matters to this nation, and about how to work hard to achieve goals.

Of the 15 members of Obama’s cabinet, four are women, and two are mothers. Hillary Clinton, one of the moms, has already announced her intention to end her tenure as Secretary of State after the election. And both she and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius have grown children. The dads on the cabinet include at least four who have school-aged children. Romney has begun preparations to form a cabinet, although he has not named his choices yet. But his transition team and circle of close advisors rarely include moms.

So why are there so few moms on Obama’s cabinet? And why so few advising Romney? If moms are so great, and so valuable, to both parties, why aren’t more of them in official positions of influence?

In the Atlantic a few months back, Princeton Professor Anne-Marie Slaughter wrote an article in which she explained her decision to go back to Princeton rather than continue working for Hillary Clinton in the State Department. In Why Women Still Can’t Have It All, Slaughter describes the cultural and societal forces that make it difficult for women to be involved in the lives of their children and climb the ladder towards professional success, particularly when it comes to jobs within the highest reaches of the federal government.

Slaughter identifies practical solutions: changing the cultural expectations surrounding when and where both men and women work, placing a higher value as a culture on time spent with children, and recognizing that influential positions within government might only be possible after children have left the nest.

But she also concludes that including moms in the highest reaches of government is not up to moms alone: “If women are ever to achieve real equality as leaders, then we have to stop accepting male behavior and male choices as the default and the ideal. We must insist on changing social policies and bending career tracks to accommodate our choices, too. We have the power to do it if we decide to, and we have many men standing beside us.”

Ann Romney and Michelle Obama spoke on behalf of their husbands when they praised the moms of America and extolled their own roles as mothers. And yet neither mentioned social policies like paternity leave or incentives for flexible work that might allow more moms to faithfully raise their children while also advancing their careers. Government policy alone will not change the number of mothers in the halls of power. But both parties have an opportunity to couple their rhetoric about moms with policy measures. Both parties could offer policies to support a stable family structure in which women are not on their own to raise their children as well as an economic system that provides means for women to advance their careers even in the midst of PTA meetings and baseball games.

This election centers on the economy and the role of government. But both parties should also pay attention to the moms, not just through rhetorical flourishes at the conventions, but also by championing their involvement in structuring governmental policy. Whether or not Michelle Obama remains the Mom in Chief, we can hope the election of 2012 brings more moms into positions of power within the White House.

Read more opinions from Amy Julia Becker

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