Parents have the power to become America's strongest special interest group

Like many parents, I’ve watched with mounting frustration as the Build Back Better Act hangs in the balance — possibly within reach of the millions who would benefit; possibly just beyond it.

Congress returned this week vowing to debate President Biden’s signature bill — a bill that would invest in, among other things, universal pre-kindergarten, affordable high-quality child care, paid family leave and an expanded child tax credit — even after Sen. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinVoting rights failed in the Senate — where do we go from here? Biden: A good coach knows when to change up the team The Memo: Biden looks for way to win back deflated Black voters MORE (D-W.Va.) appeared to have doomed it in December. 

The largest social safety net expansion in 80 years, designed to help parents and young children in particular has been dangled repeatedly in front of us — 21 months into a pandemic that has killed more than 800,000 Americans, decimated livelihoods, jettisoned women from the labor force and revealed deep cracks in our nation’s infrastructure of support for families.

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Parents cannot afford to sit idly by. 

More than 60 million people are raising children in the United States, and proposals for stronger investments in early childhood enjoy wide bipartisan support. We must view this moment as a clarion call. We must declare our collective identity and shared commitment to all children and families. We must galvanize to demand more — more from Manchin, more from Congress, more from society. 

When a group of people speaks with one voice, society listens 

Sixty years ago, a coalition of seemingly dissimilar senior citizens came together to declare that the conditions facing older Americans were unconscionable. In the mid 20th century, Americans over 65 were the poorest, most underserved segment of the U.S. population. The AARP changed all that.

Thanks to the group’s efforts over the last 50 years, the poverty rate among Americans aged 65 and older has declined by almost 70 percent and the AARP has grown into one of the nation’s most formidable political forces. Importantly, the group unites constituents across socioeconomic, political, racial and ethnic divides by focusing on rights that benefit everyone.

It’s time for parents of young children to mount a similar bid for solidarity and much-needed societal supports.

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The vast majority of parents in the United States have to work outside of the home, yet high-quality childcare remains out of reach for far too many families.

The average cost of childcare is around $10,000 a year per child, according to a September U.S. Treasury Report. That accounts for about 13 percent of family income — close to two times what the government considers affordable. In some parts of the country, childcare costs double or triple that. Approximately half of Americans, meanwhile, live in childcare deserts.

The United States remains the only country among 41 nations that doesn’t mandate paid leave for new parents, forcing countless families to opt into an expensive, fragmented, overtaxed childcare system whether they’re ready to or not. 

These shortcomings aren’t just logistically galling, they expose a nation evading our moral imperative to help all children reach their promise.

Most brain growth — close to 90 percent, in fact — occurs in the first five years of a child’s life. Those five years are an evolutionary gift, providing the human brain a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to form strong neural connections and build the foundation for lifelong cognitive and socio-emotional development. 

They’re also the years when we leave parents completely on their own, struggling to patch together time off work to care for a new baby, struggling to find high-quality childcare, struggling to make ends meet. 

As a pediatric physician for more than 20 years, I witness, day in and day out, parents striving at great lengths to give their children the strongest possible start in life. No effort is too monumental. No obstacle is as large as their love.

Over the past two years, as I worked on a new book about parenting in this country, I spent hundreds of hours talking to parents from all races, ethnicities, religions and political affiliations. Time and again, I heard parents express a desire for community, a sense of camaraderie, societal supports that would allow them to parent the way their children need and deserve.

The time is now. 

Parents simply must recognize that although we differ in many ways, we are united by sleepless nights, the depth of our love and an overwhelming desire to do right by our children.

We have the potential to be the largest special interest group in the country. In recent months, we’ve seen the political power of parents in action, as groups of moms and dads rally in response to K-12 policies they (often) disagree with.

But parents should not wait until children are in school to galvanize. The first five years are simply too critical. Social supports for parents during that 0-5 window have the potential to impart outsize influence on our children’s brains, but also on our ability to parent in line with our values. Parental choice is considered sacrosanct in this country, as it should be. But what does choice mean when there are no options to be had? 

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It’s difficult to imagine a diverse coalition coming together in our current political climate. But enhanced support for parents and young children can and should be championed by anyone who has ever loved a child, and anyone who wants to see our nation live up to both its ideals and its full potential.

The time is ripe for parents to galvanize — to advocate for systemic supports that would finally, truly, make parental choice a reality and to demand that our elected officials champion them. 

Parenting has the power to bring us to our knees. But what brings us to our knees must also rouse us to our feet. 

Dana Suskind is a pediatric cochlear implant surgeon and co-director of the TMW Center for Early Learning + Public Health at the University of Chicago. She’s the author of the forthcoming book, “Parent Nation: Unlocking Every Child's Potential, Fulfilling Society's Promise.”