Parents Need Their Own AARP

Compared with other wealthy nations, the United States is a uniquely difficult place to raise children. One in four mothers returns to work within two weeks of giving birth, and we’re the only rich country that doesn’t have federally mandated paid leave for new parents. While other wealthy countries invest an average of $14,000 a year for every toddler’s care, America spends $500.

The pandemic sharpened our awareness of these problems—parents left the workforce in droves, child-care centers closed en masse—and yet little has changed. Child care was cut from the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act, leaving families to scrape together funds for a service that now costs more than in-state college tuition in many states. To add insult to injury, a growing number of employers have started scaling back their parental-leave offerings. Unsurprisingly, the happiness gap between parents and nonparents is larger in the U.S. than in any other developed country. Many caregivers here feel scared, exhausted, and isolated in our struggles.

I’d like to propose a solution based on my decades of experience as a pediatric physician and social scientist, the research I conducted for my latest book, and my own experience as a parent: an AARP for parents. A National Association of Parents and Caregivers could choose widely supported policies to champion, welcome members of all ideologies, forge partnerships with the private sector, and hold policy makers accountable to the needs of the roughly 63 million Americans raising children.

There is precedent for something like this. In the mid-20th century, Americans over 65 were a severely underserved segment of the population. They had limited retirement savings and faced crippling health-care and housing costs. Politicians were content to look away, likely due to the fact that elderly Americans then voted at lower rates than any other age group.

AARP changed all of that. Launched in 1958, the organization unified older Americans under one shared vision, helping push for landmark legislative victories in the mid-1960s, including the creation of Medicare and protection from age discrimination in employment. Since then, AARP has successfully fought for prescription-drug benefits for seniors, the ongoing protection of Social Security, and more. When COVID-19 arrived, AARP lobbied to ensure older adults would receive priority in vaccine distribution. With these victories, AARP has helped older Americans embrace their collective identity—and power. In 2017, the poverty rate among Americans ages 65 and older was almost 70 percent lower than it had been in 1966. Imagine what we could accomplish with a collective whose agenda was focused on advancing parents’ interests.

AARP evolved into an economic and political powerhouse in part by securing tangible benefits for its members. Surveys show that these perks—such as discounts on health, home, and auto insurance, cellphone plans, and meals at national restaurant chains—are the No. 1 reason people join AARP. The organization’s leadership was not afraid to form the mutually beneficial partnerships with businesses to make them happen. By adding its branding to products, AARP brings in revenue that has likely helped keep membership costs low—starting at $12 a year—and ultimately building a base of nearly 38 million card carriers. Today, AARP is so popular that many members aren’t even retired, and even young people are joining.

In another strategic decision, the organization decided not to endorse or financially support any candidates for public office. This allowed the group to appeal to a broad swath of Americans and to unite constituents across socioeconomic, ideological, and racial groups. Rather than aligning itself with a political party, AARP remains driven by the interests of its constituents: Its membership today identifies roughly as one-third conservative, one-third liberal, and one-third moderate.

A caregivers’ lobby could use AARP’s novel hybrid structure as a model—with one arm dedicated to bringing in revenue and establishing consumer benefits for members, another for community-building activities, and a third lobbying for their legislative interests.

The benefits for dues-paying members could include discounts on diapers and formula, membership pricing at a high-quality child-care center, and access to an all-hours pediatric-health hotline. Businesses should have an incentive to join the alliance because parents spend a lot: Raising a child to age 18 costs middle-income Millennial families more than $300,000. Other parents might join in search of community: In an international survey, 32 percent of new parents said they felt lonely and isolated. A parents’ coalition could host events, including family-friendly outings at local businesses and cultural institutions, as well as organize volunteer opportunities that allow members to get to know one another.

When it comes to lobbying, there is no shortage of public policies that would benefit parents in this country. But a parents’ coalition would be wise to focus its efforts on those likely to appeal to the largest number, with the greatest impact. Paid family leave and an expanded child tax credit are clear winners. In a recent survey, 84 percent of registered voters supported paid leave, which is proven to improve maternal health, support fathers’ involvement in child-rearing, and contribute to a child’s healthy development. Though it may not be as popular, the expanded child tax credit would benefit more than 61 million children and is capable of lifting nearly 4 million of them out of poverty—as was the case when the credit was briefly expanded in 2021. Research shows that a child credit pays for itself in the long run, in the form of reduced expenditures on remedial education, health care, and criminal justice. These policies would benefit families across political backgrounds, and regardless of whether one or more parent works outside the home.

Of course, such an entity will have its detractors. Some might say that parenting is a deeply personal endeavor, one that no lobbying group should play a role in. But a parents’ coalition would facilitate parental choice, not restrict it. By helping to alleviate some of the burdens families face, the coalition would free up more of parents’ resources to raise children in the way that they want. Still, any organization dedicated to serving parents will need to pick its social and legal battles. It can also complement some of the many existing groups and individuals that champion more specific causes. Advocates who are currently fighting for paid family and medical leave or high-quality early-childhood education or compensation for stay-at-home parents could unite under the umbrella of a national parents’ lobby.

We have the economic case, and the general consensus, that parents need more support. What we lack is political clout. Older Americans galvanized because there was finally someone looking out for them, not the other way around. Parents need a similar revolution.