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The Bleak Picture Of America's Future

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I was five months pregnant with my second child when I went in for the job interview. I was working part-time for a website as an editor and I wasn't even sure I wanted a new job. But my husband and I had been doing the calculations and with two kids in daycare, I needed a raise or I needed to quit. Also, the recruiter who called me insisted it was perfect for me, "Flexible hours, great pay, family-friendly and they think you'd be perfect for the job."

And while I enjoyed working from home, the idea of better pay and a more structured work environment was appealing. I waddled into the office and waited for the interview. When the woman from HR came out to shake my hand, she looked at my stomach and frowned. "Oh, I didn't know you were pregnant."

"I didn't know it was relevant," I said. She smiled, "Of course not, we are family-friendly!"

But as I found out over the next 30 minutes, "family-friendly" meant no paid maternity leave, I didn't have the ability to occasionally work from home and the manager frequently mentioned that the people at the company worked "long hours to get the job done."

The starting salary was $25,000. I stood. "Thank you, but I am not interested," I said and walked out.

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A few months later, I quit my job. I didn't want to. I loved working. But the economic realities of working with two children were too much to face. Even in the Midwest, where the cost of living is affordable, we couldn't make it work.

Tonight, several local public television stations will air "Raising of America" a documentary that looks at the hard realities of having children in America. The documentary has some bleak statistics: America has fallen from first to twenty-sixth out of 29 developed nations for the well-being of our children. 40 percent of 5-year-olds show up to kindergarten unable to learn. We rank 23rd out of 29 for high school graduation rates and 19th out of 29 for college graduation rates.

In sum: Our nation's policies and practices are making it difficult to be parents.

Something is clearly wrong. But while other countries have approached the problems facing their children in a political way, the American solution to this problem has been to shove all the responsibility onto the parents. In the meantime, parents are more stressed out than in previous generations. Wages are down, while the cost of medicine and housing have increased. The New York Times recently reported, "[A recent Pew Survey] found something of a stress gap by race and education. College-educated parents and white parents were significantly more likely than other parents to say work-family balance is difficult."

And this stress is hurting our children.

In sum: Our nation's policies and practices are making it difficult to be parents.

The documentary delves into the history of advocating for pro-family policies in politics starting with the Family and Medical Leave Act (FLMA), which gives mothers a guaranteed 16 weeks of unpaid leave. Before it was adopted, the policy faced heavy scrutiny by the business community which claimed free-enterprise would fail if companies had to bear this burden. It passed, but barely. And surprise, free enterprise still exists.

But FLMA is weak. Many women who go back to work after taking their FLMA leave face added pressure from employers. One woman in the documentary was fired after she came back. Of course, such practices are illegal, but what parent has the time and money to hold a company accountable? We barely have time to eat breakfast.

But it's a question many bootstrapping Americans ask, "Why should a personal problem be a public one?" But the real question is, why should a public problem be a private one?

The most poignant moment in the documentary, was during the discussion of the US Military childcare program, which provides affordable, high quality childcare to those in the armed services. An amazing benefit to be sure, but it points out the hypocrisy of a country determined to provide childcare help for their soldiers, but deny it to the rest of the country. Each of our country's political parties claim to be pro-family, yet we are the last developed nation to actually enact pro-family policies like subsidized childcare and paid maternity leave.

The documentary points out, even the childcare we do have is lacking. Childcare workers earn little to nothing. A recent article in The Atlantic notes, "How can daycare be both a drain on the resources of clients, but also not pay a living wage? For a childcare operation to be considered high quality, one of the biggest factors is child-to-staff ratios, the lower the better, especially for the smallest children who require feeding, diaper changing, and lots of other hands-on work. That makes it especially difficult to increase the productivity of the child-care model."

Both the New York Times, The Atlantic and "The Raising of America" all point to one thing: Government intervention. This is a public problem, not a private problem, because it affects the well-being of our country and directly impacts our ability to compete with the rest of the world. How can we call America great when we won't invest any of that greatness into the succeeding generations? Our American sense of exceptionalism is nothing but a misnomer when it applies to our children.

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Recently, a friend of mine complained on Facebook: "Why should companies provide you with paid maternity leave?" This friend, of course, has the luxury of having a husband with a good-paying job and her own career that is flexible. But it's a question many bootstrapping Americans ask, "Why should a personal problem be a public one?" But the real question is, why should a public problem be a private one?

This documentary seeks to answer both forms of those questions with poignant testimony and disturbing statistics. But for parents, they illustrate an all-to-familiar reality of the struggle between medical costs, childcare, low wages and housing.

My youngest is now two and I'd love to be back on the job market again, but not much has changed in two years besides my age and stretch marks. Childcare is still expensive and corporations are not flexible. There is one thing I do know, it's that something needs to change—and it's not America's parents, we are all working as hard as we can.

You can watch "The Raising of America" free online until November 30.

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