As parents head to the polls Nov. 4, many will cast ballots based on who they think will provide the best possible circumstances for their children, both now and in the future.
"A majority of Americans are very concerned about the direction of the country," says Jean Johnson, executive vice president of the non-partisan research group Public Agenda, of the increased interest in this presidential election. "There is an anxiety in the land."
Republican nominee John McCain and Democratic nominee Barack Obama are both promising they’re the candidates to ease this anxiety for parents. Although their campaign staffs declined interviews, here’s a breakdown of where each candidate stands on the issues that affect families most, from the economy and health care to education and values.
With 86 percent of Americans characterizing the economy as "only fair" or "poor" in an August Gallup poll, lighter wallets may force many families to place more weight on the candidates’ economic plans in this election. In fact, Gallup reports that about six out of 10 people characterized economic issues as the most important problems facing this country today, outranking the war in Iraq, the energy crisis and education.
Taxes: The biggest differences in the two candidates’ economic plans are their tax proposals, says Bruce Meyer, a professor in the Harris School of Public Policy at the University of Chicago. Obama’s plan calls for cutting taxes for the bottom 80 percent of Americans, Meyer explains, while McCain will cut taxes for most people, but by a smaller amount. "There really is a big shift in the tax burden under the Obama plan because he would increase taxes on higher income people quite a bit, but cut them for the vast majority of people," he says.
Obama plans to make these tax cuts, in part, by expanding the earned income tax credit, a program originally launched by the Ford administration. The expansion is expected to put four million people above the poverty level, most of whom are children. A single mother with two children making $10,000 a year, for instance, would get a subsidy of 40 percent, making her income $14,000. "It turns a $5 an hour job into a $7 an hour job," Meyer says. "There is a lot of evidence suggesting that this credit has encouraged single mothers in particular to work."
McCain, on the other hand, plans to leave President Bush’s 2001 and 2003 tax cuts in place, while reinstating a small state tax, Meyer says, adding that McCain calls for a broad-based plan that has the greatest benefits to high income earners. According to McCain’s Web site, he also plans to ban Internet and cell phone taxes and to lower corporate taxes.
Foreclosures and mortgages: One out of every 583 Illinois households filed for foreclosure in July 2008, up more than 60 percent from July 2007 and roughly 25 percent higher than the national average, according to RealtyTrac, an online real estate marketplace. As the housing crunch hits home for Illinois families, McCain and Obama are promising relief. "Both of the candidates realize we’re in big trouble with respect to the homeownership issue," says Kenneth Janda, professor emeritus in the political science department at Northwestern University. The question is: what are they going to do about it?
"You want to figure out how you can relieve those who got in over their heads," Meyer says, "but you don’t want to do so much of that that you encourage people in the future to take on risks that they shouldn’t."
Obama’s plan to protect home-ownership and prevent mortgage fraud is to create a new Federal Housing Administration that will urge lenders to buy or refinance existing mortgages into 30-year fixed mortgages. According to Obama’s Web site, he plans to mandate more accountability in the subprime loan industry. Among other plans, he intends to create a fund to help homeowners avoid foreclosure and to create a Universal Mortgage credit that will give 10 percent credits to qualifying families.
McCain has proposed what he calls the "HOME Plan," which, according to his Web site, will allow eligible homeowners to trade in their mortgages for a federally backed loan. Expected to stop 200,000 to 400,000 families from losing their homes, the new loans will be guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration. "Priority number one is to keep well-meaning, deserving homeowners who are facing foreclosure in their homes," McCain’s Web site says.
Balancing family and work: In Illinois, about 70 percent of children ages 6-17 are living with working parents, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, meaning it’s more important than ever for local families to find ways to balance the stresses of work and parenthood.
"The question is," says Michael Petit, founder of the non-partisan Every Child Matters Education fund, "with women as such a large proportion of the work force, does government support an infrastructure that supports them working, which we see in other rich democracies, but we don’t see here?"
McCain’s answer is to create the National Commission on Workplace Flexibility and Choice, a group that will make recommendations about ways to help families. His Web site says the commission will consider issues like creating flexible scheduling, promoting telework and allowing more job training assistance.
According to his Web site, Obama plans to expand the Family and Medical Leave Act to cover smaller businesses and more purposes, such as elder care needs, 24 hours a year to participate in children’s academic activities and time to address domestic violence. Other plans include encouraging states to adopt paid leave and increasing high-quality after-school opportunities and flexible work arrangements. His Web site also says Obama is committed to expanding the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit, which credits a percentage of the cost of child care, and protecting against caregiver discrimination in the workplace.
Gas and food prices: According to his Web site, McCain will increase the value of the dollar, which will decrease the cost of imported fuel, and he will create a summer gas holiday, which suspends the 18.4 cent federal gas tax from Memorial Day to Labor Day. He intends to repeal the tax on sugar ethanol to increase competition. McCain also plans to roll back mandates on the production of corn-based ethanol, which is driving up the cost of food.
Obama’s Web site proposes a plan to jumpstart the economy. He intends to enact a "windfall profits tax," which will tax oil company profits in order to give a $1,000 "emergency rebate" to help families cover rising bills. Obama also plans to allocate $50 million to jumpstart the economy and help prevent one million Americans from losing their jobs.
Forty-seven million Americans were without health insurance in 2006, almost 9 million of which were children under 18, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, leading both candidates to question how to make health care affordable without sacrificing quality and development. "It’s not so much the quality of health care, but the cost of health care," Janda says. "We might have the best health care system that money can buy, but a lot of people can’t buy it."
Obama’s platform is to establish a national health care plan, with guaranteed eligibility and required coverage for children. According to his Web site, the plan will have "comprehensive benefits" similar to the plan offered to members of Congress. This new plan would allow for people to move from job to job without losing or changing their insurance and the Obama site promises "affordable premiums, co-pays and deductibles." He also plans to create the National Health Insurance Exchange to keep an eye on private insurance plans. "There’s a much bigger role for the government in Obama’s health care," Janda says.
Obama’s proposed health care plan requires employers to make a "meaningful contribution" for their employees’ health care or they will have to put a percentage of the payroll toward the national plan. "We need to make sure that we’re not creating a system where there’s a perverse incentive for people to take jobs that don’t provide them health insurance," says David Meltzer, associate professor of medicine and economics at the University of Chicago.
McCain’s proposal, according to his Web site, is to give individual families and patients control over their health care plans. McCain plans to give a tax credit ($2,500 for individuals and $5,000 for families) to put toward the cost of insurance or to be saved in a health savings account. He also intends to make insurance more available to high-risk patients, but Meltzer says these may be the people who would be in trouble with this plan. "If you’re sick you’re not going to able to buy insurance with $2,500," Meltzer says. "These health savings accounts, which is something Republicans have been interested in for a long time, are typically plans where the individual is bearing a lot of out-of-pocket costs. The people who tend to like those accounts are people who tend to be healthy."
While the candidates have some major differences, he also points to their common ground, including prevention, disease management and the expansion of information technology. "The devil is in the detail for a lot of these things," Meltzer says.
One detail he says voters should take time to consider is where each candidate stands on investing in effectiveness research and the development of new technology. "For the future of America’s health, if we don’t make those investments today, we’re going to pay dearly in the future."
With more than 2 million Illinois children enrolled in public schools, the presidential candidates’ stances on education are important for local families. Both candidates plan to make changes to the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which set up federal standards for the achievement of local schools. "The concern about No Child Left Behind has to do with the relationship between local schools and the federal government," says Robert Bruhl, clinical assistant professor of political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago, adding that some worry the federal government is mandating changes from local schools without giving them adequate funds to achieve those changes.
Obama’s plan for education calls for expanding early childhood education and reforming No Child Left Behind in order to help, not punish, failing schools and to make sure teachers don’t have to spend all year preparing for standardized tests at the expense of other classroom learning. Some of the other issues on his education platform include recruiting math and science graduates into teaching, addressing the dropout crisis by intervening as early as middle school, increasing after-school and summer programs and supporting students learning English. For families thinking about college, Obama’s plan will cover the first $4,000 of tuition for most families in exchange for community service. "The Democrats put more faith in public schools," Janda says.
McCain’s plan, according to his Web site, calls for the expansion of No Child Left Behind. And when families don’t feel their public schools are living up to the expected standards, he plans to expand voucher programs that allow families to get funding for private schools instead of sending their children to public schools. "If a school will not change, the students should be able to change schools," McCain’s Web site says. He also plans to expand technology in schools, invest in creating online schools and course offerings, such as Advanced Placement classes, SAT/ACT tutoring and foreign language instruction.
Both McCain and Obama’s plans have pros and cons, Bruhl says. McCain’s plan for vouchers, for instance, would help families to pay for private schools, but will take tax money away from local schools. Obama’s plan to help pay for higher education will make college more affordable, but only helps families who have children planning to go to college. "So both of those (programs) would, in fact, help families," Bruhl says, "but they’re not slam dunks."
Three out of every four Americans characterizes "family values" as an important factor in their voting decision, according to a 2007 USA Today/Gallup poll. Family values, according to the poll, include issues ranging from morality to abortion to marriage. And as American families learn to go green, the future of the environment has become a value concern as well.
McCain plans to appoint Supreme Court justices committed to overturning Roe v. Wade, leaving the decision to legalize abortion to individual states. He also plans to promote adoption and to work to keep marriage between one man and one woman. He opposes cloning and the creation of human embryos for research purposes. In terms of Iraq, he doesn’t believe in withdrawing troops until the Iraqi government is capable of "governing itself and safeguarding its people," according to his Web site. McCain’s plan to preserve the environment includes setting limits on greenhouse gas emissions and developing newer, greener technologies.
Obama is running on a platform that protects a woman’s right to obtain a safe and legal abortion, while also expanding access to contraception and working to decrease the number of unwanted pregnancies. His women’s rights platform includes issues like equal pay for equal work, improving child support collection and reducing domestic violence. Obama plans to bring public service into the lives of more Americans by expanding the Peace Corps and offering college students tax credits for their tuition in exchange for volunteer work. He also has proposed plans to enhance civil rights by reducing hate crimes and ending racial profiling. His environmental plan includes reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050 and eliminating the need for Middle Eastern and Venezuelan oil within 10 years. Obama supports a "responsible, phased withdrawal" from Iraq.
Laura Schocker is a Chicago Parent intern and a graduate student at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism.