Parents & Presidential Politics

By Deirdre Wilson

Parents Have Power … Why Aren’t We Pushing the Candidates to Respond to Our Needs?

Parents' Voices 
Parents have strong opinions about the upcoming election and the issues that affect them and their families.
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You’re a parent. So ask yourself: When you step into the voting booth on Nov. 2 will you be voting as a parent first – before party affiliation, race, gender or any other characteristic?

A nationwide poll of parents during the 2000 presidential campaign revealed that more than half of those surveyed view being a mom or dad as a top consideration when voting. The only factor that ranked higher was where they lived.

“When you live in a certain community, you’re in an echo chamber,” says Ruth Wooden, former president of the National Parenting Association, which commissioned the poll. “I think parents also live in an echo chamber. Their lives are their children’s friends, their children’s school and the places where they are with their children.”

Exit polls from the 2000 presidential election revealed even more about parents as voters – they comprised about 50 percent of the presidential vote that year. “Other than the designation by sex, there wasn’t any other demographic that was higher,” notes Wooden, who is now president of the New York-based research organization Public Agenda.

All things considered, parents have the potential to be a very powerful voting force – with the ability to successfully push for all kinds of support and benefits for families. Why then are the issues that would seem to matter most to parents – such as job security, family support, affordable health care and adequate funding of education – not having more success on Capitol Hill or in the White House? In this year’s contentious presidential campaign, why aren’t the needs of parents and families getting the same kind of attention and emphasis as the war in Iraq or the continued fight against global terrorism?

One explanation, says Wooden, is that parents are leading busy, stressful, exhausting lives – they’re simply too tired to make their voices heard. Beyond that, the answer may also lie in the way parents view themselves.

“For most people, their parent identity is a private identity,” Wooden says. “Parents don’t feel the government should meddle in their family life.”

While many parents would welcome a political agenda more supportive of families, just how involved the government should be is subject to significant debate. Opinions about government involvement tend to fall along fairly traditional party lines.

Ellen Galinsky, president of the New York-based Families and Work Institute, which studies work-family balance issues, believes ideological differences between parents have hampered efforts to create a powerful advocacy group.

“There have been a number of people who have tried to start this kind of group,” Galinsky says. “They actually find some division among parents. We don’t all think the same way.”

Even the National Parenting Association, founded in 1993 to advocate for parents along the lines of what the AARP has done for seniors, has decided to narrow its mission and concentrate on work/family issues. The group hopes to have more of an impact in this way, since work issues – job security, health insurance and economically strong communities, for example – are central to parents’ primary concerns.

Family Issues of 2004

It isn’t that parents don’t have strong opinions on the issues this election year. Even a small, informal poll of more than 100 parents nationwide, conducted by United Parenting Publications, found that most parents rate the economy and health care as the most important issues for the next president. Not far behind are education and concerns about the environment.

The results jibe with larger, more general public opinion polls that also rate the economy and health care as top issues.

However, Wooden says, “In terms of proportion, these aren’t being discussed by the candidates that much. Everybody’s concerned about terrorism and public safety – whether it’s our soldiers at risk or being at risk right here at home.”

Certainly, parents are concerned about homeland security.  Julie Klouse, a mom in Federal Way, Wash., expresses her fear that “if terrorism is not dealt with severely, our country will become like Israel, with more incidents of terrorist activity happening on our soil. I am greatly concerned about the safety of all of our children and the world in which they are and will be living.”

“That’s kind of a given,” Wooden says. “But the other issues – the triumvirate of the economy, health care and education – those issues at the top of the agenda for most people, but particularly for parents, are really taking a second seat.”

While the lack of a powerful parenting lobby is a factor, Wooden believes it’s also likely that those issues aren’t grabbing more dominant headlines because they aren’t easily defined or fixed. They’re not as controversial as the war in Iraq or fears of another terrorist attack.

Politicians can say that health care is just too complex and should be left alone with the hope that the situation won’t get worse, Wooden says. “It’s not urgent to them. It’s more like ‘I’ll deal with the fire in the living room before I clean up the bathroom.’”


The Economy and Jobs

By far, the No. 1 concern for most parents and families this year is the economy and, more specifically, job security, according to opinion polls and observers. News reports touting an economic recovery are frustrating when, for many people, economic instability remains very real.

Galinsky believes there’s a disconnect between the headlines and what people are actually experiencing.

“Everyone knows someone who has been downsized. The reality is scary,” she says. “Maybe it didn’t happen today, but it could happen tomorrow.”

“We haven’t done an assault on job creation,” adds Wooden. “It’s a recovery against a recession right now and no one is showing 6 or 7 percent growth. I think that’s the biggest threat for families. It defines where they live, the quality of their schools, whether they have health care and more.”

Concerns about job security even affect family formation, Wooden says. “The age of first marriages has jumped a lot because young people can’t afford to start a household.” And, she adds, families today cannot, for the most part, survive on one income.”

On-the-job stress in a globally competitive business environment is also a major issue for parents trying to balance work and family – but it isn’t what political parties ask about when polling to see what issues are important to voters, says Galinsky.

Massachusetts mom Pamela Schmidt agrees. “I do not believe that either presidential candidate is addressing the work/family issues in any way that shows knowledge of the topic. I have not heard any discussion about childcare, welfare-to-work incentives, and how dual earners provide for the multiple needs of the family.”

Kids Not on the Agenda

Despite the fact that parents comprise a big bulk of the vote in this country, the needs of children aren’t getting enough attention this year, Wooden asserts. “Children haven’t really been in the political discussion.”

Education issues are particularly important, she says, pointing to the federal “No Child Left Behind” education reform initiative, and this fall’s release of the list of schools that aren’t making “Adequate Yearly Progress” under the law. Many will have failed to make that progress for two to three consecutive years and will face sanctions as a result.

Wooden also cites an upcoming report on higher education access that she says will reveal increasing problems for families trying to send their kids to college. “There’s a real gap in affordability,” she says. “This is an issue that’s overwhelmingly important to people with kids, where policy makes a difference but it’s really not being attended to.”

Polls aside, when parents are asked directly what issues are most important for the next president, many raise impassioned pleas for children’s education and well-being.

“Nothing is more crucial than the care and education of our youth,” says Petrice Young. “We owe it to ourselves to elect a representative who feels as strongly about children as we do.”

Gary Barker, a father in Oakland, Calif., cites the rigidity of the “No Child Left Behind” law: “It throws children, no matter what their learning ability, into one big hopper and expects everyone to succeed at the same level.” Barker also worries that his 14-year-old son will inherit a huge federal budget deficit, and perhaps even a reinstatement of the draft to deal with increasing anti-American sentiment around the world.

Georgia mom Carla Andrews points to increasing violence and sexual content in the media as a top issue.

“As a parent, I believe that the media needs to be more regulated,” she says. “Young children need to keep their innocence as long as possible and it’s parents’ responsibility to guide them in this area. But our job has been undermined and is becoming increasingly more difficult when the media is determined to make our little ones see and experience worldly and adult ideas now.”

T-SIZE: 10pt">When it comes to siding with either presidential candidate, parents are as fervently divided in their beliefs as other groups of voters.  Some, like Klouse of Washington, believe President Bush’s re-election is vital to the continued security of the country and the preservation of family values. Others, like Helen Behar, a mother of two in Santa Cruz, Calif., believe Sen. Kerry is the answer to the domestic ills afflicting families, particularly the lack of affordable health care. (Of the millions of Americans without health insurance today, four out of five are from working families.)

T-SIZE: 10pt">“There are way too many uninsured kids in our country,” Behar says.

Parent Power

T-SIZE: 10pt">Numerous organizations exist to advocate for specific family issues, including such heavy hitters as the National Organization for Women, the American Academy of Pediatrics, Focus on the Family and the Children’s Defense Fund. Galinsky notes that “there are a lot of people in Congress who would love to do more for families and they would like a voting constituency to help them.”

T-SIZE: 10pt">But will parents ever be successful in mobilizing politically on a national scale? Wooden expresses doubts. “I think the outlook is grim because the percentage of households with children is going down,” she says. “Needless to say, parents are still a big block; they’re just not a coherent block.”

T-SIZE: 10pt">Yet Wooden still believes that parents have a legitimate claim as a powerful special interest group – one that could finally convince the government and the nation to truly value parenting and families.

T-SIZE: 10pt">“Outside of the income tax credit, I’m not aware of a whole lot of policies aimed at family improvement,” she says. “[Families] are the least likely to be able to save money, so they don’t have investment options. They don’t get a credit on health-care premiums. You get a break at the movies when you’re 65; even students get a break on their education loan rate. But parents don’t get a break on a car loan when they’ve got three children at home. There’s no break if you have kids. It’s not considered a public benefit.”

What if, Wooden muses, a single mother with three children in her household could count as four votes in a presidential election? “Children don’t have the right to vote, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have needs that should be addressed through public policy,” she says.

Until we do successfully mobilize into a cohesive voting block around family issues, the best we can do as parents is to make sure we vote.

“If parents are politically active or, more importantly, politically aware,” says mom Petrice Young, “then we can ensure that candidates who have the same priorities that we have can represent us.”


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Parents' Voices 
Parents have strong opinions about the upcoming election and the issues that affect them and their families.