Candidates cater to parents, but miss top concern: time

Despite effort to focus on 'family issues,' Gore and Bush could do more, some say.

Camille Braun has a few things Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George Bush want: her time, her attention, and ultimately, her vote.

But like millions of other parents trying to balance the stresses of life with the demands of raising a family, Ms. Braun feels as if neither candidate is "really talking to me."

"I don't think either one will make things that much better for me and my family," says the Long Island mother of two teenagers. "I do feel badly, but I also don't have time to get into this stuff."

Ironically, in a campaign where so-called family issues from education to healthcare to Social Security dominate the headlines - and rarely a day goes by that one candidate or the other isn't pictured on a miniature chair courting the kindergarten crowd - family experts say both candidates are missing the mark. A recent survey by the National Parenting Association (NPA) found that 64 percent of parents think "public officials don't care much" about what they think.

The issues are important to them, no doubt. But ask parents what their most pressing problem is, and the vast majority say balancing their work and family lives. They want practical solutions to cope with it, such as using tax credits to encourage businesses to be more flexible and family-friendly.

This desire for more balance is emblematic of a cultural shift back toward home and hearth, a reaction in these good economic times to the high-stress double-income family lifestyle. While it isn't yet a galvanizing issue in the current political framework, some analysts believe whichever party best addresses it could hold the key to the election.

"It's like healthcare in the early '90s," says Ruth Wooden, NPA president. "It was nowhere, then it came right to the front in politics. I think that could potentially happen here."

Despite being a hodgepodge of ages, races, political parties, and personalities, parents are remarkably unified when identifying issues important to them, such as finding more time to be with their children, coping with the threats of drugs and violence, and improving education.

They also tend to describe themselves more than non-parents do as Independents, or weak Democrats or weak Republicans.

A politically hot demographic

In other words, they are bigger, more unified, and more up for grabs than other segments of the population. And that, Ms. Wooden believes, makes them "politically really hot."

That's not been lost on either political camp. Besides addressing the big three issues - healthcare, education, and Social Security - each candidate has a grab bag of proposals designed to appeal to parents.

"The real issue is, what's the best circumstance to raise children under," says Richard Gelles, a professor of social welfare at the University of Pennsylvania.

Mr. Gore favors a substantial boost in federal tax credits to support child care as well as increased standards of care nationwide. He supports creating after-school programs for 10 million kids and would provide a 50 percent tax credit to parents to help pay for after-school care.

Gore also supports tax credits for parents who choose to stay at home to care for their kids. He favors expanding the Family and Medical Leave Act and has proposed an initiative to encourage more responsible fatherhood.

In Texas, Mr. Bush has upped low-interest loans to encourage more people to enter and stay in the child-care profession.

He's increased funding for child care, particularly for low-income parents, and increased standards.

Bush also supported after-school programs targeted toward at-risk kids. He favors what he calls drawing "a moral line" - giving schools more ability to discipline students and encouraging parents to do so as well.

He's proposed spending as much on abstinence education as on sex education. And, like Gore, he believes in fostering more-responsible fathers.

Winning the family battle

Right now, Bush appears to be winning the family battle. In polls, he is almost 10 points ahead of Gore among married people. Pollster John Zogby believes that's due in part to Bush's ability to appear more empathetic to parents' challenges.

"Right now, Bush is coming off as all heart and Gore is coming off as all brain," says Mr. Zogby. "And right now voters are saying, 'You gotta have heart.' "

Republican pollster Kellyanne Fitzpatrick agrees, but also says that Gore is suffering from his Clinton connection and the scandals of the administration. "At the same time," she adds, "Al Gore has failed to showcase what some may argue is his greatest strength - which is his own marriage and family."

Gore is married to his high school sweetheart, and unlike many baby boomers, he's still married to her and still thinks she's "really cool."

Policy solutions a challenge

Images and rhetoric aside, however, many family experts still believe the candidates haven't quite hit the mark in terms of energizing parents.

The NPA survey found that while 80 percent of parents believe the government can do something to address their concerns, less than half think the government is responding to their needs. That's six points lower than four years ago.

But Norval Glenn, a professor of sociology at the University of Texas, says he understands why the candidates aren't easily able to address parents' needs. "I don't know what can be done in terms of public policy to deal with the acute work-family conflicts a lot of parents are facing," he says. "It's kind of a doing of the general society and the general culture, and I don't know if there's any political solution to it."

Still, Wooden and others believe the creative use of tax credits to encourage businesses to be more family-friendly (a proposal that 90 percent of parents surveyed favored) and providing more family leave for things like parent-teacher conferences would be a good start.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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