Where Will Clinton Stand on the Family Values Issue? : Policy: Two advisers have drafted wide-ranging proposals aimed at protecting children and giving parents more assistance. Now it’s up to the President to establish his priorities.
Plunging into the thorny thicket of family values, advisers to President Clinton have proposed that he wage an intense campaign against out-of-wedlock births, make divorce more difficult, mandate drug treatment for pregnant addicts and try to make parents and the media more responsible toward children.
The proposals can be found in a handbook, “Mandate for Change,” published recently by Berkley Press and endorsed by Clinton. It was prepared by the Progressive Policy Institute, the think tank of the Democratic Leadership Council, which Clinton once headed and whose president, Al From, leads Clinton’s transition team on domestic policy.
The authors of the book’s family policy section also propose tax subsidies for middle-class and working-poor parents, federal assistance for child support, quick passage of the Family and Medical Leave Act and government leadership in making workplaces more “family friendly.” In addition, they emphasize family preservation over foster care.
Will any of these proposals come close to materializing? Observers say it depends on the priorities Clinton chooses within heavy budget constraints and how he deals with opposition from the right and the liberal wing of the Democratic Party.
The authors of the section on family policy are William A. Galston, a public affairs professor at the University of Maryland who is also Clinton’s adviser on plans to link national service with student loans, and Elaine Ciulla Kamarck, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Public Policy Institute.
Galston said he and Kamarck aimed to carve a path somewhere between traditional liberal and conservative notions of what is best for families.
“Traditional liberals have focused on economic problems to the exclusion of culture and family structure, and conservatives have done just the reverse. It’s not a useful debate to continue,” Galston said.
Some of the proposals ring a moralistic bell, not unlike former Vice President Dan Quayle’s attacks last year on single mothers and the media. But Galston said what Americans really want is to improve family life, not to condemn other lifestyles.
“Americans are very worried about the state of the American family and of children,” said Galston.
“Americans are very worried about the cultural sea on which families are floating. They see the media, particularly TV, as an almost uncontrollable force that diminishes their own efforts to bring up children and impart to them the common-sense values they would like them to cherish.”
Some conservatives, pleased by Galston’s and Kamarck’s tax-relief and pro-marriage proposals, say they are nonetheless bothered by the idea of federalized child support. “It’s basically a new government subsidy for single parents. That would be disastrous,” said Robert Rector, family issues analyst for the conservative Heritage Foundation, which published its own manifestoes on public policies for the Reagan and Bush administrations.
Rather than forging a centrist path, the Galston/Kamarck proposals represent a “deep schizophrenia” within the Clinton Administration, Rector said. He said he expects opposition to the proposals to come from liberal Democrats and to be carried out behind the scenes.
Here are some of the proposals in more detail:
Galston and Kamarck say the child support system should be federalized to ensure that payments are made. Payments should take into account the fact that motherhood often diminishes a woman’s earning capacity, they say, and they propose that, in general, divorce should be made more difficult.
Several states have experimented with divorce reform. Georgia requires counseling sessions for parents considering divorce. A Washington state law requires divorcing parents to draft a parenting plan to reduce their children’s exposure to conflict and provide for their physical and emotional care.
For middle-class families, Galston and Kamarck say government should provide a package of tax cuts that includes an $800 increase in the personal exemption for parents of preschoolers. The exemption would be gradually phased out so that by the time a child is 11, the relief would be the same as current exemptions.
In addition, they say, single parents should be taxed at the lower rate that applies to married couples. And the government should explore an increased personal exemption for families caring for relatives over 70 in their homes.
Galston and Kamarck also propose an expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit for working-poor families, whose children make up more than half of all poor children. The proposal builds on a $12.4-billion expansion of the credit passed by Congress last year.
Some critics say the tax cuts would be better directed to the poor, rather than spread around to include the middle class. Irv Garfinkel, Columbia University professor of contemporary urban problems, said that, rather than an exemption increases, he prefers Clinton’s stated campaign proposal of a refundable tax credit, which would provide more real relief to poor families.
Help for Working Parents
The President should sign the Family and Medical Leave Act, reintroduced Jan. 5, as a “minimum signal” to businesses of what they ought to do. The act would guarantee up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave for family members who need time off from work to care for a newborn infant or a seriously ill child, parent or spouse or to recover from their own disabling illness.
The family leave act is seen as largely symbolic but has widespread congressional support. Indications are that it will be passed this month, said Mike Russell, spokesman for the House Education and Labor Committee.
As one of the nation’s largest employers, the federal government, Galston and Kamarck say, should adopt family-friendly policies, particularly home-based work and telecommuting.
Galston said Clinton should help families by creating a “certain tone, even a certain moral tone, as a critical supplement to the law.” He should use the “bully pulpit” of the office to encourage states to pass laws like California’s Street Terrorism Enforcement and Protection Act, inspired a Los Angeles city ordinance to punish parents for their children’s gang-related activities. It was successfully challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union and is pending before the state Supreme Court.
“The child-welfare system is in need of a massive overhaul from the top down,” Galston and Kamarck write, and they promote in-home family-preservation services for the poorest of the poor. Typically, family-preservation programs send counselors into the homes of at-risk families to teach parenting skills in the hopes that the state won’t have to intervene and place the children in the “confusing and ultimately damaging world of foster care,” the handbook says.
Claiming that the media share responsibility for family disintegration, the authors stop short of proposing government regulation, instead suggesting that Clinton promote a “broad national discussion” of media responsibility. Although much research on the impact of television has been inconclusive, they write: “It is fairly well established that educational programming accelerates early learning and that televised violence exacerbates aggressive behavior.”
They call “disappointing” broadcasters’ response to the 1990 Children’s Television Act to voluntarily limit violence and advertising on children’s programs. The cartoon “GI Joe,” for instance, was simply reclassified as an “educational” program.
Some observers expect Tipper Gore, who championed warning labels on explicit recordings, to lead a campaign advocating more media responsibility. But according to media critic Michael Medved, “What’s problematic is that the Clinton-Gore ticket got a huge amount of money from Hollywood. So Tipper has been very quiet on all this for a long time.”
Family advocates praise Clinton’s advisers for possessing a depth of understanding of children’s issues that surpasses that of the last three administrations. But they warn that their proposals can create bureaucratic or legalistic nightmares and may not even be possible.
“I think it’s healthy to talk about the fact that it’s more favorable for kids to have two-parent families, if only for the time and range of skills,” said Douglas Nelson, director of one of the nation’s largest foundations concerned with disadvantaged children, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, based in Greenwich, Conn. “That needs to be said plainly and matter-of-factly.”
But he said there is a “danger in trying to find the line between creative incentives, recognition and support for intact family structures” and punitive sanctions for failing to meet parental responsibilities. “What do you do to a mother who doesn’t take drug treatment? Take the child away? Take welfare away so she is less able (to provide care)?
“To the extent we punish single-parent families as a way of trying to affirm our support for two-parent families, it is counterproductive to the interests of children,” he said.
“I don’t think you can punish people into changing their behavior.”