Politicians should take a cue from Cosby

David Blankenhorn, Idahonian Daily News, 11/7/1987

Any presidential aspirant seeking the "family vote" should begin with pro-family tax reform that offers targeted relief to families raising children. It could be done by raising the child exemption in the tax code to $5,000, up from $2,000 under current law. (Last year's tax reform raised the exemption from $1,080). If phased out for the wealthy and made refundable for the poor, such a "family tax credit" would boost real income by about $750 per child for the majority of American families who have suffered an economic squeeze over the last 15 years. Such a credit would embody our belief that raising children is more than a series of costly private choices. It is a social imperative that should be supported by public policy. Yet the "family tax credit" would also preserve private choice, helping some families to afford child care while also helping those parents who wish to stay at home with their children.

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Subjects: Family, Family law , Family policy

More by: David Blankenhorn

"The Cosby Show" is the nation's most watched TV program because it conveys a message that Americans today yearn to hear: Families matter.

Since the cultural revival of the American family may, by 1988, become a political revival as well, presidential aspirants are already scrambling to stake their claims to the "family vote."

Not so long ago, "the family" was considered the sole political property of the New Right; "pro-family," in this context, meant opposing abortion and homosexuality while supporting school prayer and the "traditional" family of Dad as breadwinner, Mom as homemaker.

Yet today the family debate is being redefined; it has outgrown its original sponsors. Many feminists, for example, now link family concerns to the women's movement, especially as more women seek to balance child-rearing with working.

In general, liberals today are less reluctant to address issues involving values; indeed, many liberals now see the family debate as an opportunity to unite many of their policy ideas into a larger moral message. Conservatives are worried. Allan Carlson, who directs the Rockford Institute, a conservative think tank, admits that "Properly cast, 'family' might just turn out to be liberalism's long-awaited new idea."

A recent Yankelovich poll shows that 60 percent of Americans believe that "family values: deserve "more attention" from government. A Harris poll finds the 52 percent of adults believe that family life has deteriorated since they were growing up. Over 50 percent say they would accept higher taxes to pay for better health care for poor children and the elderly, more child care for working parents and more job training for teenagers.

This transformation of the family debate from a sectarian dialogue among conservatives to a bipartisan national issue may become the most important social policy fact of the 1988 elections. Will any of the presidential aspirants become the electoral equivalent of Bill Cosby – the pro-family candidate?

The first to lay claim to such a mantle could quickly attract a powerful constituency, which in turn may provide the key to the White House.

Any presidential aspirant seeking the "family vote" should begin with pro-family tax reform that offers targeted relief to families raising children. It could be done by raising the child exemption in the tax code to $5,000, up from $2,000 under current law. (Last year's tax reform raised the exemption from $1,080). If phased out for the wealthy and made refundable for the poor, such a "family tax credit" would boost real income by about $750 per child for the majority of American families who have suffered an economic squeeze over the last 15 years.

Such a credit would embody our belief that raising children is more than a series of costly private choices. It is a social imperative that should be supported by public policy. Yet the "family tax credit" would also preserve private choice, helping some families to afford child care while also helping those parents who wish to stay at home with their children.

A second theme should be the "pro-family workplace." Today's parents need flexible policies that help them harmonize the demands of family and work – policies that permit them to be better parents. Both public and corporate initiatives should encourage parental leaves for childbirth, job sharing, flexible work hours, and on-site or near-by child care. Such ideas are rooted in the new realities of the workplace and family, yet their guiding purpose is quite traditional: to allow parents more time with their children.

Another theme would replace the current welfare system with a new program to promote family stability and economic independence. Instead of welfare benefits, the program would offer a guaranteed job, including child care, for all able-bodied recipients. In addition, stronger child support laws would require non-custodial parents, usually fathers, to assume more financial responsibility for their children.

Liberals and conservatives increasingly agree that the current welfare system fosters dependency, encourages family breakdown and subsidizes teen pregnancies. Substituting jobs for benefits, while costly, would offer recipients a genuine ladder out of poverty without the disincentives to work and family formation that plague the current system. Stricter child-support payments would not only help mothers and children, but also, in the case of teenagers, create strong reasons for boys not to make babies before they are ready to become fathers.

A final theme should emphasize the importance of teaching values in our schools. As cultural norms changed over the past 25 years, and as school populations became more diverse, schools became reluctant to teach what used to be called "character development" and "citizenship" – moral values such as honesty, respect for others and for the law, the link between effort and reward, and the benefits and responsibilities of living in a democracy. Yet silence or neutrality regarding these values is surely the wrong lesson to teach our children.

Teaching what has been called "moral literacy" will of course be a complex issue, requiring distinctions between basic values and narrow orthodoxies, between the importance of cultural tolerance and the danger of moral agnosticism. But it need not be a partisan political issue. Re-cent Gallup and Harris polls show strong agreement and remarkable good sense among parents on the values they want taught, as well as a broad consensus that schools should do a better job. So long as "teaching values" does not become a code, for imposing religious or political views on young minds, it will attract bipartisan national support precisely because it reinforces popular family values.

These four themes suggest a national family agenda that is neither liberal nor conservative, Republican nor Democratic. It confronts the core issues facing the American family and will fit the strategic needs of either party. Thus it is twice blessed: good policy and good politics. Where is the candidate to embrace it?

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