Work and Family: How Government Drives Parents and Values out of the Home

July 7, 2008 - 7:02 PM

It's great to return to AEI. Over the years, we've fought many philosophical battles together in the cause of protecting liberty, reducing taxes, preserving justice, and strengthening America's defenses. My wife and I are proud that we have many good friends in this room. Marilyn wanted to be here today, but she's been busy planning her Senate campaign in New York.

These are reasonably prosperous times for our country: From an economic point of view, we are told that things couldn't be better. For most, there is a great deal of truth in that. But let us not forget that poverty hasn't really declined in recent years, the underclass has expanded, the middle class is exhausted, 30 percent of young black men looking for work can't find it, and many of our farmers are barely getting by. Our challenge is to harness this prosperity, create more growth, and make sure it's enjoyed even more widely than it is today.

In this political city, there's an obsession with winners and losers, who's up and who's down, who deserves credit and who deserves blame. Bill Clinton is claiming credit for the economy. I disagree. I believe that the true author of our prosperity is not Bill Clinton, but President Ronald Reagan and the entrepreneurship that his policies fueled.

My priority in this presidential campaign is to strengthen the American family. In contrast to just a few years ago, today when we speak of the family, we have a lot more consensus than controversy. Furthermore, we are making some progress on very important social problems concerning the family. During the 1992 campaign, I pointed out that too many of our children were being born into homes without fathers. There was a violent reaction to that assertion, but the message took hold, and now the percentage of children born into fatherless homes is beginning to come down. That's progress we can be proud of.

Since leaving the vice presidency, I've taught at a graduate business school, made speeches to audiences across the country, and written three books. The second of these was titled The American Family. In that book I profiled five families of various backgrounds, ethnicities, income levels, and political outlook. The father in one of these families, Tony De La Rosa of East Los Angeles, summed up parenting in two words: being there. "Show a child that 'whatever you do, I'll be there. And if you do wrong, then I'm going to correct you - but I'll still be there."

Being there for the children means spending time with your family - and I'm not talking about quality time, I'm speaking of quantity time. For all the concerns facing parents today, this is the one I hear most often from mothers and fathers across America. Because of today's culture, parents crave a greater sense of control over their children's destiny. And to them, simply stated, control means time - especially with very young children.

We all know how great a challenge this is. Parents are working harder than ever before. We've always been a hardworking country, but these days it's 24-7: a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week economy. The two-earner couple has become the norm. In fact, in many families, one or both parents have two or more jobs. According to one calculation, a typical middle-class couple is working six weeks more per year than they did only a decade ago.

In these busy times, we've sped up the tempo of everyday life to the point that millions are missing dinner with their families and leaving before breakfast. The number one casualty is family life. We find ourselves looking forward to absurd developments like microwave ovens in our cars, so we can cook while driving from work or running errands. That means not as many dinners together as a family. I remember how important mealtimes were to Marilyn and me when the children were growing up, and all the families I profiled in my book - from the single mother in Indianapolis to the African American family in Chicago - placed the same importance on having meals together. Having fewer dinners together is a real loss to our families.

According to The New York Times, last year the average teenager spent 1500 hours watching TV, 600 hours in school, and only 33 hours conversing with his or her parents. Meanwhile, the culture stands ready to take the parents' place in molding our children. It's hard enough to raise children, teach sound values, provide a good home, and supervise the use of TV and the Internet. If parents must also be absent, a hard job becomes next to impossible. And it is impossible for invisible parents to instill values in their children.

In one family I met recently, the mother is a teacher who works all day, and the father is a nurse who works the night shift. They don't see much of each other, but they're sacrificing to make sure that one parent is home when the children are. They understand the importance of their roles as parents, and they basically have little choice but to place time with the children ahead of time with each other.

A recent poll in the Los Angeles Times reported that a remarkable 77 percent of California mothers working outside the home would prefer to be home with the children. Only 16 percent prefer the status quo. We need to give working parents more freedom and choices when it comes to raising their children.

Let me be very clear: Women have made tremendous progress in the workforce. When my wife and I were in law school, she was one of only ten women in a school of seven hundred. Today that same law school has more women than men. No one wants to reverse that progress, and we should continue breaking down barriers to career advancement.

All mothers I know work hard, whether or not they have a career outside the home. Yet today, there is a bias against stay-at-home moms. There is a subtle attitude that their work is somehow less valuable to our society. That is far from the truth. A woman I know once told an acquaintance that she was at home with six children, full-time. The acquaintance said, "Oh - so you don't work?"

Every mother is a working mother. The term "working mother" is redundant. We must change this condescending attitude against mothers who may choose to temporarily set aside their career to care for their children in the home. Early leaders of the feminist movement described stay-at-home moms as "parasites" and "dependent creatures who are still children." They have suggested that paid work somehow counts for more, because it means "dollar power." But is that really the only kind of power that matters? Surely there's even greater power in being with your children as much as possible. Caring for your own child is a unique role that no one else can fill. As a woman in Port Orchard, Washington said to me in a letter, "Teach your children values - or someone else will."

When families feel they can afford to have one parent stay home, in most cases that will be the mother. A woman today is likely to live 80 years or more. She will probably work outside the home for almost 40 of those years. But for seven or eight of those years, she will have the opportunity to be the mother of very young children. If she decides to be a stay-at-home mother, her decision deserves to be respected and honored, not mocked or belittled. On this point I urge the employers of America to recognize the value to our country when women choose to stay at home with their young children. Don't hold this against them when they return to work. Honor their choice. Understand that the skills used every day in parenting and in volunteering in school are skills that will be valuable later in the workplace.

The same is true when it's the father who stays home. At the edge of the 21st Century, "stay-at-home parent" doesn't always mean "mother." Every family can and will decide what's best. All we should ask is that parents be allowed to follow their hearts. The problem is that millions of mothers and fathers don't feel like they have a choice at all.

The worst off are the single mothers, who have to carry all of the family responsibilities on their own. Kathy Wallace, whom I profiled in my book and who is raising five children alone in Indianapolis, said that to be a single mother is to spend every day "just trying to beat the odds." She and other single moms are doing just that, but it's not enough. On one of my many plane rides, I struck up a conversation with a flight attendant who had been abandoned by the father of their two children. She described the burdens of working full-time and trying to juggle the responsibilities, the worries, and the stresses of her life. It's not that way in Hollywood, but it's the real world for the single mom. And for this woman, things got a lot worse when her ex-husband decided to stop paying child support. She told me the state she lived in didn't make child-support enforcement a priority. So now she has to work two jobs to keep the family afloat. This happens every day to single mothers. It's not going to get much better until we commit ourselves to the proposition that a male becomes a man by supporting his children.

Among married couples, millions of them would like to choose family over work and have one parent spend more time at home, especially while the children are very young. But it just isn't in the cards.

Why not? Because government has distorted their choice by making the option economically difficult, if not impossible.

The largest part of the burden is taxes. Since I left office, federal tax revenues have increased 52 percent faster than personal income growth. The amount paid in taxes last year by the average two-earner family equals the total income of that same family in 1980. The relative values of deductions and exemptions for dependent children have also plunged over the years. Today there's no cushion in the family budget, so there's not enough family time in the schedule. And let's face it, this adds a lot of strain to the relationship between husbands and wives.

We have to recognize that government today is in direct competition with the family for every dollar that parents earn. In this campaign I am proposing to quickly reduce income tax rates by 30 percent across the board. Here's an example of what that would mean for a married couple with two children. Suppose the mother is a teacher making $39,000, which is the average in her profession. The father is a policeman earning $48,000, also an average. A 30-percent rate reduction would yield nearly $6,000 in tax relief. That just might be the difference that allows more time with the children rather than more time working.

We must correct the anti-family aspects of the tax code. Only Washington could construct something so pointless and punitive as the marriage penalty. It should be abolished. And we should fix it in a way that doesn't discriminate against stay-at-home parents.

We should also make the daycare tax credit universal. Parents who care for their own children should get the same break as those who delegate the job to someone else.

I also favor ending the tax code's bias towards employer-supplied health coverage. Many mothers believe they must work because it's the only way to obtain affordable health insurance. Let me put this in perspective. A single mother working as a waitress in a restaurant that doesn't provide health insurance must buy it herself. She doesn't get the full exclusion that a great corporation like Disney or GM gets. This is unfair. Big business doesn't deserve better treatment than that single mother, or any other working American.

Flexible work-time is another great idea that deserves encouragement. An important member of my campaign staff in Phoenix has two sons in their early teens. She works on a flex-time arrangement so she can be there when the boys get home from school. Flex time is family time, and it sure makes a difference in her life.

We should give hourly workers the same opportunities that salaried professionals have to arrange their schedules around family needs. For example, working parents should have the option of receiving time and a half off instead of overtime pay. It's called "comp time," and it's not allowed under current federal law. We should change that. Another idea is to let an hourly worker put in 80 hours over two weeks in flexible combinations like 45 this week, 35 next week. This could be especially helpful to single parents, but federal law doesn't make this option viable, either. I believe employers and employees should have the freedom to work out comp time and flex time.

Let's look at what other bites the government takes out of the family budget. An estimated 20 percent of the average household budget, after taxes, goes to meeting the costs of regulation. My approach to regulation would be to subject every proposed rule to two tests: First, is it a proper function of the federal government? Second, does it strengthen the American family? Overzealous litigation also affects families. Thanks to a litigation culture that chases easy money rather than justice, families take too large a hit on doctor bills, and on car insurance.

An intelligent conversation on the family must also include a serious discussion of education. First we must recognize that the public school monopoly is not working for many families. The Rev. Floyd Flake states it very well: this is the final phase of civil rights, because independence and economic power are not possible without education. Marilyn and I are both products of public education, and we were fortunate to go to good schools. But today many middle-class families have been cheated by the education monopoly. In some of those families, both parents have to work because it's the only way the family can afford private-school tuition. Times have changed, and so must the education system. Education reform means choice, school discipline, low income scholarships, charter schools, teacher tenure reform, and accountability. The mission of America's schools is to teach more than the "three R's" of reading, writing, and arithmetic. We need two more R's: respect and responsibility.

All of these ideas support my explicit goal of lessening burdens on families so parents can afford to choose more time with their children. There are competing ideas, also purporting to help families, but which would take us in an entirely different direction. Go through their wish-list: government daycare, government pre-school, government after-school, or government summer-school - these proposals do help many families. But they do nothing to bring parents and children together, which is what parents want and need. These proposals would only result in more spending and regulation. Which means more taxes. Which means more hours worked to pay the tax bill. They would only keep parents on the treadmill that is running them ragged and keeping them away from home. If we reduced taxes and let families choose, there would be less demand for government services.

I recognize that some believe we should just hand-cuff ourselves to the treadmill. They admit that it's not ideal, but want us to just accept it as a fact of life, and search for ways to minimize misery.

But part of being an American is always believing we can do better. When there's a threat to our freedom, or our security, or our families, do we stand up and say, "We shall cope"? Of course not. Americans say, "We shall overcome."

Several years ago, I read the following in Time magazine: "We may be stuck with the family - at least until someone invents a sustainable alternative." There is no "sustainable alternative" to the family. Strong families are the only earthly hope for the future of this or any other civilization.

We can provide the best education in the world, but only if parents remember they are the most important teachers of all. We can control crime, but only if our sons and daughters understand their responsibilities, and their own worth, as children of God. In the words of my good friend Michael Novak, history teaches that "If things go well with the family, life is worth living. When the family falters, life falls apart."

Preserve, protect, and defend the family: This is the first order of business for our civilization. It must be the first order of business for next president. Join with me, and together we can make it that way. Thank you very much.