Families and children are permanent campaign subjects in American politics, and the emergence of the two-income family has fundamentally influenced this year's debate. While only 11 percent of married women with young children worked outside the home in 1948, about sixty-eight percent do so today. Since employers in the United States provide less parental leave and other benefits than in any other industrialized nation, there is increasing stress in family life. Strengthening the two-parent family and improving childcare are the top family issues in this campaign.
Increasing fear of gun violence by children and the negative effects of pervasive images of sex and violence on television and the Internet have also spawned debate. Proponants of mandatory safety locks on guns are opposed by some anti-gun control activists who resist restrictions on the use of firearms. The "V chip" and other methods of restricting children's access to objectionable material online and on television are opposed by those who feel that such measures verge on censorship. These issues were highlighted this campaign season thanks to the September release of a Federal Trade Commission report which found that the entertainment industry routinely and intentionally markets violent and inappropriate material to minors. As a corollary to the fear of increased violent behavior among children and adolescents, there is also talk of holding parents accountable for their children's behavior: thirty seven states allow for fines or even brief jail time for parents of troublesome kids.
The very definition of family seems to be in flux in America today. Almost one-third of all American children are being raised by single parents. Eleven states are wrestling with the legality of gay and lesbian civil unions and employment benefits for gay couples, though almost two-thirds of Americans oppose same-sex marriage. Despite these cultural changes, both Bush and Gore focus on conventional definitions of family, though Gore has said he supports some form of civil unions, short of marriage, for gays, and Bush does offer single parents some tax incentives.
Both the presidential candidates and Congress have singled out the so-called "marriage penalty" in the tax code, in their attempts to focus on strengthening the American family. As the tax code is written, some married couples owe more income taxes when they file jointly than they would if they filed as unmarried single individuals, thus imposing a "penalty" on marriage. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) estimates that the marriage penalty currently affects about 22 million couples, or 43 percent of all married couples who pay an average of $1,480 more per year in taxes. Working married couples are more likely to be affected by this penalty when the second earner contributes at least 30 percent of the total household income. The provisions that result in this disparity have been the object of much public discussion; both candidates claim that they want to eliminate it.
Not all married couples pay more taxes than they would if they were single, however. The tax code also includes "marriage bonuses"--which receive less attention than the penalties--which provide some married couples with tax relief they wouldn't receive if they were single.
Kiplingers.com offers a calculator that determines whether a couple would receive a tax penalty or a bonus, based on their taxable income levels under the current tax code.
For more information on the marriage penalty, see this issue brief from the Concord Coalition:
For a review of a number of proposals to eliminate the marriage penalty, see this overview by the Heritage Foundation:
This article in Slate.com by the director of Citizens for Tax Justice, a liberal tax reform organization, argues that that the problem of the marriage penalty is overstated.
Both candidates are presenting themselves as family friendly, but their approaches vary considerably. Gore believes in expanding federal government programs to help all families pay for childcare and preschool. He also advocates expanding government support of after-school programs, programs to address school violence, and the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). In the agenda published on his web site, he says, "Though no government can raise a child, it can provide tools parents need to raise children and build a strong nation."
As Senator, Gore co-sponsored an early version of the Family and Medical Leave Act, which was enacted under the Clinton Administration and provides workers with up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave to care for a new baby or sick relative. He has also been an advocate of increased minimum wages.
On the other hand, Bush's stance on the role of the federal government in American family life is more one of tone-setting. He told a New Hampshire newspaper that he will usher in "the responsibility era." He despairs over the erosion of "our collective values" and moral standards, and the fact that over the past thirty years, "Personal responsibility has decreased while the role of the government has increased." He calls on America's families to help institute a cultural revolution, and sees government's role as one of supporting families by "sending signals" which reinforce values of personal responsibility and accountability. Monetarily, he claims he will help families by eliminating the marriage penalty and doubling the child tax credit. Bush believes his big tax cut will provide all families with the money to spend as they see fit. "Government cannot tailor its programs to the needs of each family. The best way to help all families is to let each family keep more of its income - and spend it as it deems appropriate," he says.
As Governor of Texas, Bush simplified adoption procedures and increased funding for child care for low-income families.
Should the marriage penalty in the tax code be eliminated?
Gore supports reducing the marriage penalty by allowing married couples to
claim the same standard deduction as they would if they were two single
Bush proposes reducing the marriage penalty by restoring the Reagan-era 10
percent deduction for two-income married couples, allowing them to deduct ten
percent of the income of the lower earning spouse, up to a limit of $30,000.
How much should the government do to make quality childcare
Gore believes the government should do far more to make affordable childcare
available to two-income families. His initiatives, which would cost $21 billion,
include expanding the Family and Medical Leave Act to include more employers,
providing a new after-school tax credit, making the current child tax credit
refundable, raising the quality of daycare centers, and providing universal
preschool by 2004. Gore has also proposed several new tax incentives for
families to provide for education, healthcare, long term care and retirement.
Gore also supports a $1 increase in the minimum wage and new programs to ensure
that 'deadbeat dads' pay up child support. (See Gore's September, 2000 address on this issue.)
Bush believes the most effective way to solve the childcare issue is to give all
families a substantial tax cut. "Government cannot tailor its programs to the needs of
each family. The best way to help all families is to let each family keep more
of its income - and spend it as it deems appropriate," he says. Bush would
double the child tax credit to $1000, and provide tax incentives for education,
healthcare and retirement. He also supports increasing minimum wage and
reforming national child welfare and adoption procedures to make it easier for
families to adopt children.
Should there be mandatory child safety locks on guns?
Gore supports mandatory safety locks as a standard feature, which he calls a
"common-sense measures to protect children from guns." He also advocates
closing the "gunshow loophole" whereby guns can be sold without background
checks by unlicensed dealers. He would raise the raising the minimum age for
gun owner ship to 21 from the current 18. However, he has stressed that his proposals would not in any way infringe on sportsmen and hunters.
Bush prefers voluntary use of child safety locks, though he says that if
Congress does pass a law making them mandatory he will he will sign it. He promoted a program to distribute free voluntary trigger locks on guns in Texas. In general, Bush supports the right to bear arms : "I believe law-abiding citizens ought to be allowed to protect themselves and their families," he said during the third presidential debate. However, he supports automatic background checks for gunshow sales, banning juveniles from possessing assault weapons, and increasing the minimum age for possession of a handgun from 18 to 21. (See Bush's May, 2000 comments on this issue.)
How can youth be protected from objectionable material on TV and the Net?
Gore supports making the V chip technology mandatory in new TVs. This technology would enable parents to block TV programs they do not want in their homes. He also proposes that public libraries and schools develop their own filters against objectionable Internet content in order to qualify for 'e-rate' service discounts.
Bush generally supports technological tools like the V chip and filters to regulate internet and television content, and an easy-to-use ratings system. But he believes cultural changes will make a bigger impact on children than technology. In the third presidential debate, he called for schools to focus on "character education" to counter the destructive effects of objectionable media content on children.
America's Children 2000. Highlights of 2000 report of the Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics, which details statistics on children's economic security, health, behavior and social environment, and education.
Public Agenda's Issue Summary
New York Times Childcare Issue Guide (requires free registration)
New York Times Gun Control Issue Guide (requires free registration)
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