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Why do we provide so much more support to the old than the young?

More people are noticing an awkward imbalance in our national priorities: the American public today spends $2 on each senior for every $1 it spends on each child. One reason for this disparity is that seniors have a giant bipartisan advocacy organization, the American Association of Retired People (AARP). The AARP has nearly 40 million members and counting, and it has enshrined Social Security and Medicare to the immense benefit of seniors everywhere. The closest analogue for children is the National Parent-Teacher Association (PTA) with 3.5 million members and falling. There are no politically enshrined benefits on par with Social Security and Medicare for children. 

So why don’t we have an “AARP for parents”? Why can’t we all join something along the lines of an “American Association of Parents and Guardians” that boasts 40 million members, offers us discounts on diapers and strollers and family vacations, as well as confronts politicians with dire consequences if they don’t cough up more money for children?

One problem is time. Retirees have a lot of it — parents not so much. But that’s not the main story. A bigger problem is that most parents don’t realize what they’re missing. More advantaged children access opportunities that increase their future income by hundreds of thousands of dollars. Parents should feel bipartisan outrage that all children can’t access these opportunities. But decades of messaging have taught many parents that their work is surprisingly low-stakes; that children are born with certain personalities and all the “helicopter parenting” by more affluent families is really so much neurotic, counterproductive self-indulgence. 

This idea is based on adoption studies that find children do similarly well when they’re adopted by different kinds of families. The flaw in these studies is that adoption is an exclusive process. Adopting parents exhibit radically lower rates of poverty, divorce, mental illness, bankruptcy, crime and many other problems that affect millions of loving parents around America. That means adopting parents all tend to be relatively advantaged in terms of child development. In fact, the best research suggests that children turn out very differently in adulthood depending on how they grow up, and that children benefit enormously from the opportunities provided by higher-income families. 

Parents also struggle to form a united political front due to our misplaced fixation with K12 schools. Prayer, sex education, race and gender, teachers’ unions, charter schools, vouchers — all these educational issues warrant debate, but they also distract us from our much larger shared interests. Between ages 0 and 18, children only spend 10 percent of their time in the K-12 system, and that time is surprisingly egalitarian. The remaining 90 percent of childhood is where families have to privately orchestrate child care, summer camps, after school programs, tutoring, coaching, mentoring, counseling, health care and nutrition. This under-supported time outside of school is the real origin of massive opportunity gaps that perpetuate inequality across generations.

The fact that we don’t have an AARP for parents is not only a problem for lower-income or less-educated families. At moments in time, thousands of highly educated parents have inadvertently enrolled their children in early child care systems in Quebec, Canada and Bologna, Italy  later found to have negative effects —  and the same thing may well be happening today in communities around America. If parents had more political power, we would have learned long ago what it takes to avoid these kinds of mistakes, rather than continuing to spend almost nothing on research to understand child development. 

As parents we have an uncomfortably high-stakes job, and we need richer public support to do our best work and give our children the opportunities they deserve. If we put our minor differences aside, we can join forces in a nonpartisan, mass-membership organization that gives families a real seat at the table. The AARP has helped to transform retirement by fighting for Social Security and Medicare. An “AARP for parents” would create analogous opportunities for families through access to high-quality child care, after school and summer programming, professional tutoring and counseling, health care, college and vocational support, as well as scientific research. Whereas support for seniors comes at a daunting fiscal cost, support for children can literally pay for itself as new generations grow up to earn higher incomes, start more businesses, spark more innovation, pay more in tax revenue and rely less on public assistance. 

So, the blunt fact is that it’s not just families who stand to gain from stronger, more bipartisan advocacy on behalf of children. It’s really all future Americans.

Nate G. Hilger, Ph.D., is the author of “The Parent Trap: How to Stop Overloading Parents and Fix Our Inequality Crisis.” He is an affiliate of the Population Studies and Training Center at Brown University, and he previously worked as a professor of economics at Brown University. He is also data scientist at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. These views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.

Tags Child care economy Education K-12 education Parenting public education

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