Summoning the country to "eliminate child poverty as we know it" by the end of the next decade, Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley today tackled a problem he has made a centerpiece of his campaign, outlining a package of initiatives that he said would represent a down payment on reaching his goal.
Bradley called for a $1 increase in the minimum wage over two years, plus $10 billion annually in new federal spending. The money would expand the earned income tax credit (EITC) for the working poor and fund other steps designed to provide more income and greater opportunities to disadvantaged children and their parents.
Bradley described child poverty as "a kind of slow-motion national disaster" that he said should gnaw at the nation's conscience during a time of "unparalleled prosperity." The fact that 13.5 million children live below the poverty line, he said, "is simply unacceptable."
The address came as the race between Bradley and Vice President Gore for the Democratic nomination is increasingly competitive. One sign of Gore's nervousness about the gains Bradley has made was his effort on Wednesday to preempt Bradley's speech with a set of proposals aimed at enhancing the role of fathers in families to fight child poverty.
Gore's campaign distributed information today that said the vice president already has supported many of the ideas Bradley proposed. Gore policy adviser Elaine Kamarck dismissed Bradley's poverty prescriptions as "nothing new" and said he offered "no underlying theory of how to get at the roots of child poverty." She called his proposals "just a series of spending programs, many of which [President] Clinton has done."
The tension between the Bradley and Gore camps reflected some of the divisions within the Democratic Party during the welfare reform debate in 1995 and 1996, when liberal Democrats bitterly opposed Clinton's decision to sign the bill passed by a Republican-controlled Congress, while the New Democrat wing of the party endorsed the plan. But Bradley's policy prescriptions today did not depart significantly from the path set by Clinton.
Bradley, who as a senator opposed the welfare reform measure, grudgingly acknowledged today the strides made over the past six years in reducing the poverty rate among adults and children, calling them "small advances." Since 1992, the poverty rate among children has declined from 22.3 percent to 18.9 percent, with 1.8 million fewer children now living in poverty.
But Bradley argued that, with more children in poverty now than in 1970, the poverty rate remains far too high for a country as wealthy as the United States. "Only in an indifferent moral universe can we feel satisfied" where one in five children live in poverty, he said.
Bradley admitted that his wallet could not match his ambitions, but he argued that until presidential leadership is directed at the problem, it will never be solved. "Eliminating child poverty as we know it is a big goal," he said. "I know that what I am proposing here today will not accomplish, in and of itself, that goal. But the first step is the commitment, and I am making that here today."
Nor did Bradley take issue with the welfare reform act that he opposed. Except for some tinkering, his plan would not touch the far-ranging measure that eliminated the federal entitlement for poor people, established work requirements and lifetime benefit limits and shifted much of the responsibility for the program to the states. Eric Hauser, Bradley's spokesman, said Bradley continues to have "doubts about its long-term viability" and will monitor its effects in coming years.
Bradley also endorsed a view shared by Clinton's domestic advisers by seeking to reward work rather than relying on federal assistance alone to eradicate poverty. "The foundation of our effort should be the guarantee that no one who works full time, year round, should have to live in poverty," he said.
Bradley's speech, delivered at the Concord Baptist Church in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, was the latest in a series he has given this fall detailing the central themes of his campaign. Next to his plan to dramatically increase health care coverage, the child poverty proposal represents his most ambitious domestic initiative.
Bradley advisers said the new spending would come from the projected budget surpluses. To date, the candidate has earmarked $65 billion annually for his health care package, about $2.6 billion for steps to help working families, and today's $9.84 billion tab for alleviating child poverty. The price tag of that domestic agenda will eat up most of the non-Social Security surplus generated over the next decade, and some experts have said that Bradley has underestimated the cost of his health care package.
The main elements of Bradley's antipoverty package include:
* Raising the minimum wage by $1 over two years and then indexing future increases to median income.
* Expanding the EITC by providing more assistance to families with three or more children, allowing families to keep more of the benefit as their earnings increase and reducing the tax penalty on married couples.
* Making the tax credit for dependent child care refundable.
* Requiring child support payments to go directly to children of parents on welfare, rather than to the state as is now the case.
* Increasing funding of the Child Care Development Block Grant program by $1 billion annually.
Bradley also proposed expanding Head Start funding by $1 billion a year to make it possible for almost every eligible child to enroll and a plan to put 60,000 teachers annually into urban and rural schools.
Sarah Moore, who works at the Concord Baptist Church's family services organization, said she was impressed by Bradley's speech but skeptical about whether it would come to pass. "If he can follow through on what he's proposing, it would be wonderful," she said. "If this is just another campaign spiel, well, follow the crowd."
CAPTION: Bill Bradley signs autographs for students after speaking in Brooklyn, N.Y.