Bradley suggests more help for working parents

Federal aid, streamlining of state programs urged to improve family life

October 08, 1999|By Ellen Gamerman | Ellen Gamerman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PETERBOROUGH, N.H. -- Touching on an anxiety that troubles many working parents -- the difficulty of raising children while also having a fulfilling work life -- former Sen. Bill Bradley proposed yesterday that federal dollars and streamlined state programs be used to ease the strain.

Lamenting that "the global economy just doesn't care about the 6: 30 dinner hour," the Democratic presidential hopeful suggested ways that his administration would improve the lives of working parents.

He proposed allocating $2.6 billion for various programs, including money to improve child care, an expansion of the popular Family and Medical Leave Act to cover more businesses and provide longer leaves, and $400 million more a year for community colleges.

"What individual families cannot build on their own, we can all build together," he said.

Bradley's working-family initiative seeks to draw distinctions between him and his rival for the Democratic nomination, Vice President Al Gore. But this week, Gore offered his own aid package for overworked households, including the administration's identical plan to make the Family and Medical Leave Act more inclusive, mainly by adding businesses with as few as 25 employees compared with the present 50 workers.

Bradley's working-family proposal comes as he adds specifics to his campaign themes. Last month, the former New Jersey senator proposed a health care plan intended to make insurance more affordable. And in coming weeks, he plans to offer detailed education goals.

Ideas for helping the middle class improve its quality of life are getting plenty of play this election season. Prosperous times have left the candidates looking for new ways to connect with voters on issues beyond the strength of the national economy. Such proposals also reflect an effort to attract important suburban swing voters.

Prosperity is fostering a new breed of problems, Bradley said -- a kind of chronic malaise.

"We are economically healthy," he told several hundred students and residents gathered in the gymnasium at Contoocook Valley Regional High School in Peterborough, whose town sign states simply, "A Good Place to Live In."

"But are we socially healthy? Are we spiritually healthy?"

This was Bradley's third visit to New Hampshire, a conservative state whose early primary is considered pivotal in shaping the presidential race. Addressing the Contoocook Valley high school students, Bradley seemed to be reaching out not so much to those youngsters as to their parents.

Some heard the message and were inspired.

"I'm ready to write him a check, and I haven't given money to any presidential candidate since Paul Simon," said Gail Hoar, a 58-year-old artist from nearby Wilton.

Hoar, like others in the crowd of mostly Democrats, had voted for President Clinton. But she said that she found Gore "hollow" and that by contrast Bradley "plays to the American people, not to the benefit of either party."

Others expressed doubts about the affordability of Bradley's ideas.

"I'd like to see where he'd come up with the money," said Jane Silver of Manchester, Conn., who took the day off to see Bradley. "How he's going to pay for this stuff? That's a big stumbling block for him."

While the plan does not specify how the programs would be paid for, it does detail how the money would be spent -- including $200, tax-free, to any senior citizen who works with children as least 15 hours a week. Bradley stood ready to defend it as fiscally prudent.

"This proposal is not about big government," the candidate added. "It's about big ideas."

The Bradley campaign said that all the money would come from the budget surplus. Other ideas, such as the child care initiative, encourage public-private partnerships to limit the federal government's role.

Bradley was pitching his ideas in relatively liberal Cheshire County, which President Clinton carried in the 1996 election. Recently, Bradley pulled slightly ahead of Gore among New Hampshire Democrats, according to polls.

In his plan for working families, Bradley proposed $2 billion for states to spend on day care and education for youngsters up to age 5. Bradley's idea is to give states a dedicated stream of federal dollars to create a clearinghouse for child care.

It is modeled on a program in North Carolina called Smart Start, in which educators, parents, businesses and government agencies -- among others -- coordinate child care together.

The federal government offers more than $10 billion a year for child care-related initiatives. Bradley's $2 billion would come on top of that sum.

Pub Date: 10/08/99

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