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How Not to Survive in America - Be a Mom

GENERALLY the parent who drops out of the work force and stays home with the children for an average of 11 years is the mother. Using this premise, it's easy to say that women get it coming and going. They get no job security or parental-leave benefits, access to affordable and good child care, and limited health-care coverage when they have children. If they stay out of the work force for even a short time to raise their children, they lose out on valuable Social Security and pension benefits when they are old. They risk ending their lives in poverty.

It is hard to grant that America is a country that values families when women face such dire consequences for having and then caring for their own children. A country that values families makes provision for families.

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What Americans really value is individualism. That's well known. How families survive and what they do with their children is considered a private matter. Families are not a matter of public concern. This outlook worked fine when we all lived on our frontier homesteads and took care of ourselves; when families were a cohesive economic unit and didn't face financial hardship and loss of benefits if the mother stayed home with the children.

This certainly is not the case anymore and hasn't been for some time. The dollar has lost so much real value in the past 15 years that in traditional two-parent families both parents must work to survive. In single-family households, which are almost the norm now, the hustle just to live day to day is even more intense.

Economic and cultural changes have made the survival and care of families a matter for public concern. Concern for the elderly fostered the passage of the Social Security Act in the 1930s. Concern for families should foster the passage of federal family-policy legislation in the 1990s.

South Africa and the United States are the only industrialized countries in the world that have no national prenatal-care program, no parental-leave policies, and no national child-care program. We worry a lot about whether to keep abortion legal, but we don't worry much about babies after they are born. Even fiercely capitalistic Japan has a comprehensive family policy.

The US House of Representatives recently passed a bill guaranteeing three months of unpaid parental leave to employees of businesses with over 50 employees. The Congress has passed child-care legislation. President Bush vetoed both. Why? The legislation is ``too expensive'' and ``takes individual initiative away from employers.'' What tired, old excuses. There's always enough money in the budget to pay for Stealth bombers and the like, but there isn't enough money to support families.

A truism that contradicts these old excuses is that employees who feel valued by their employer are happier and more productive than employees who feel neglected. American companies that have implemented family policies have found that productivity and worker morale have increased tremendously. Family policies don't take away individual initiative. Rather, they create a positive business environment and don't inhibit growth.

The truth is, many Americans still entertain the fantasy of Dad going off to work and Mom at home with the kids. Everyone knows this isn't true anymore, but we just can't let go of the image. It's so comforting. We figure that people who can't live that way have problems that aren't ours. We won't see that the economy and society have simply changed.

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The irony of clinging to this fantasy family is that if we did have a national family policy, we'd probably have more families like the ones we mourn for. If women could stay home with their children and not face financial hardship, loss of medical benefits, and poverty in old age, many probably would stay home for a few years and care for their kids.

It's time to look reality in the face. This country needs to support families. Women should not be penalized on both ends for caring for their children at home. Likewise, mothers who must work should be assured adequate leave, medical care, and safe, affordable child care when they return to work.

Taking care of families and capitalism are not clashing concepts. Most Western European countries have had comprehensive family policies since the end of World War II or before.

Having children and raising them should not be a losing proposition. A national family policy is an important component to national security. A secure nation is built on secure families.

There's a slogan going around that says, ``It'll be a special day when the Pentagon has to hold bake sales to raise money for bombs and schools don't have to.'' To rephrase, ``It'll be a special day when taking care of families means taking care of the country.''

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