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Archive for Friday, December 1, 2000

Focus on families, not chads

December 1, 2000

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It's hard to remember now, but there was a time say, a month or two ago when the national conversation was not about butterfly ballots and punch cards, but something more important.

Politicians were actually talking about children and the American family. Sure, the talk was largely poll-driven, crowd-pleasing, insincere rhetoric, but the words were right. Education. Health care. Leave no child behind!

Now we're stuck with aborted voting and pregnant chads.

Time to change the channel. Let's cede All Florida All the Time to the courtroom regulars, and focus on how to mend the torn domestic fabric of this nation.

There are two ways to approach this monumental task: With a wide-angle lens, and with a microscope.

The first approach crossed my desk in a 28-page report by The American Assembly (www.columbia.edu/cu/amassembly/index.html), founded nearly 50 years ago by Dwight D. Eisenhower. Unlike ideological think tanks, the Assembly can't be pigeonholed; it brings together diverse individuals to deliberate social issues and reach consensus on concrete policies.

This report, entitled "Strengthening American Families," grew out of four days of discussion by 53 experts in September. No doubt they intended to create a blueprint for the next administration. No reason that still can't happen.

They didn't mince words: "Our society especially our public and economic institutions does not give sufficient time, status and financial support for the essential task of care-giving in families, schools or childcare centers. We also think that, for many people, family life has been corroded by an ethos that exalts personal gratification and consumerism over commitment to family relationships."

Amen.

The Assembly's recommendations see contemporary American life through that wide-angle lens. Creating more time for families must be placed near the top of the nation's public agenda, despite Corporate America's resistance.

How? By offering 60-hour workweeks for couples and reduced workweeks for single parents. By expanding family leave, ending mandatory overtime and investing in public transportation.

And here's the one that made me cheer by ensuring that school hours and vacations better fit family employment schedules.

This series of recommendations wasn't written only by big government, anti-business liberals. Conservatives and CEOs were well represented in the consensus-building exercise which, I'm sure, is why the elimination of the marriage penalty also was listed. And marriage itself was hailed (with qualifications) as the ideal family form for the rearing of children.

Amen to that, too.

The Assembly's approach is refreshing and inspiring, but it's a long-term plan that depends on national political and moral leadership that is, right now, missing in action. Change can be panoramic, or it can reside in the nitty-gritty of laundry schedules and carpool calendars.

Jessica DeGroot relishes those microscopic details.

The West Philadelphia resident, Wharton grad, wife and mother is on a mission: To persuade couples that they can combine professional achievement and active parenting if they are willing to challenge the way they pursue both.

Her Third Path Institute holds workshops, operates a Web site (www.thirdpath.org) and champions the cause of "shared care" the notion that couples themselves have to reinterpret responsibilities for work, home and child-rearing.

DeGroot's own marriage is an example. She and her husband of 10 years, Jeffrey Lutzner, work from home and take turns caring for their son and daughter and doing household chores.

An obvious optimist, DeGroot is out to change the world from the kitchen, not only the boardroom. "We're in this mega-shift right now where we've gone from an agrarian to an industrial to a technology-driven economy," she says. "It's chaos."

That is, she claims, the perfect moment to redesign the workplace, reimagine one's marriage and rethink our commitment to future generations.

Or, we can continue to obsess about pregnant chads. Your choice.

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