Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) challenged Joe Biden to clarify where he stands on women working outside the home Wednesday night, citing comments he made in 1981 when he took a stand against expanding a child care tax credit for well-off families.
On the second night of this week’s Democratic presidential debate in Detroit, Gillibrand cited an op-ed Biden wrote in which he argued against an expanded credit, saying Congress should not subsidize the “deterioration of the family” by encouraging both parents to work outside the home.
“I just need to understand, as a woman who’s worked my entire career as the primary wage-earner, as the primary caregiver. In fact, my second son is here, and I had him when I was a member of Congress,” said Gillibrand. “So under Vice President Biden’s analysis, is my serving in Congress resulting in the deterioration of the family because I had access to quality, affordable daycare?”
It was a bit hard to follow since the audience didn’t get the full context. Gillibrand’s spokeswoman posted the op-ed on Twitter though:
As HuffPost wrote last week, Biden was the lone dissenter in a 94-1 vote for an amendment expanding a child tax credit in 1981.
Biden did not wholly oppose the child care tax credit: He supported expanding it for couples making less than $30,000 (about $88,000 in today’s terms). The amendment he voted against benefited people earning more than $30,000 ― but it also would have helped workers with the lowest incomes, who would have been able to receive cash refunds. (The provision was changed in the final bill that became law.)
Biden offered his own amendment to eliminate the credit for couples making a combined income of more than $30,000. Single parents would have had no cap.
What was striking were Biden’s comments on social policy as it related to the amendment. While he said that poorer taxpayers shouldn’t have to subsidize the daycare expenses of wealthier families, he also questioned whether both parents should be working outside the home at all.
From a report in the Indianapolis News on July 29, 1981:
I think it is a sad commentary on this society when we say, as a matter of social policy, that we should make it easier for people who have neither the financial necessity nor the personal need to forget their responsibility to take care of a child all day from the time the child is an infant until the time he or she gets in school. I do not care whether in a modern marriage you want the man or the woman to take that responsibility. That has to be resolved by each couple individually. ...
So what we are doing now as a social policy, is saying, “Here, drop them off at 8 o’clock in the morning and pick them up at 3 o’clock in the afternoon, because I want a new patio; because I want to go on vacation; because I want to expand my horizon.” As a social policy I think it is undesirable and wrong.
The reality was, especially then ― but still now ― that child-rearing responsibilities most often fell on the mother. So Biden’s argument that families should ideally have one parent at home would effectively mean that fewer women would be able to pursue career opportunities. At the very least, Biden believed, the government shouldn’t be encouraging such a break from tradition.
“That was a long time ago, and here’s what it was about,” Biden said in response to Gillibrand on Wednesday night, never fully addressing the family comments. “It would have given people making today $100,000 a year, a tax break for child care. I didn’t want that. I wanted the child care to go to people making less than $100,000. And that’s what it was about.”
Biden well understood the challenges of working and raising children, especially as a single parent. He had lost his wife and daughter in a car accident in 1972, right before his swearing-in as a senator.
At the debate Wednesday night, he noted that his deceased wife worked while they had children, and his current wife, Jill Biden, has also consistently worked as a teacher.
Although even in 1981, Biden said he was fine if families wanted to have two parents working outside the home ― he just felt it was not something the government should encourage unless it was a financial necessity.
Biden cited the work he’s done on women’s rights, including the Violence Against Women Act, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009 and the Equal Rights Amendment. He said that Gillibrand had praised his work in the past, and he wondered what had changed.
“I don’t know what’s happened, except that you’re running for president,” he quipped.
Biden now supports an $8,000 tax credit for every parent who needs child care assistance. But he has not yet said whether he believes there should be an income cap, despite his insistence on the issue in 1981.