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Bradley Centers Campaign On Vow to Eliminate Child Poverty

By Ronald Brownstein

Bill Bradley declared Thursday that as president he would seek to reduce the number of children in poverty by more than half over the next decade, attaching a specific goal and dollar sign to a central theme of his campaign.

But the $9.8 billion-a-year plan he gave to meet his ambitious target offered more continuity than contrast with policies already supported by Vice President Al Gore, his rival for the Democratic nomination.

Appearing before an enthusiastic audience at a church in the low-income Brooklyn neighborhood of Bedford Stuyvesant, Bradley spoke in sweeping terms about the nation’s moral obligation to combat what he called the “slow motion national disaster” of childhood poverty. “Let us eliminate child poverty as we know it,” Bradley declared to loud applause.

Toward that end, he proposed to raise the minimum wage, expand child-care assistance, enlarge the earned income tax credit for the working poor, improve access to after-school programs and increase funding for Head Start.

In each area, Bradley’s differences with Gore are more of degree than kind. Little in Bradley’s speech differed philosophically from the basic direction the Clinton administration has pursued to combat poverty and which Gore is now pushing as a candidate.

The most consistent contrast was that Bradley, on several fronts, proposed to go farther than Gore has -- although on some specifics the vice president wants to spend as much or more than the challenger. Gore, meanwhile, has placed more emphasis on the role of family breakdown and absent fathers in the persistence of child poverty -- themes he emphasized in a speech Wednesday.

As striking as anything Bradley included in his speech was what he left out. After voting against the 1996 welfare reform bill that President Clinton signed into law -- and repeatedly criticizing it since -- the former New Jersey senator called for only modest changes in the measure.

“The scale of Bradley’s effort (to fight child poverty) does seem to go beyond what’s been put on the table to date (by Gore), but there’s no great new insight about how to tackle poverty or great new initiatives,” said Will Marshall, executive director of the Progressive Policy Institute, a centrist Washington think tank.

Specifically, in a document released by his campaign, Bradley said he would seek to reduce the number of poor children by 3 million in his first presidential term, and another 4 million in his second.

To reach that goal, Bradley offered several proposals, including:

-- An increase in the hourly minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.15 over the next two years. After that, Bradley said, the minimum wage should be automatically increased by the annual rise in the median wage for workers.

-- A substantial increase in the Earned Income Tax Credit, which provides tax relief for the working poor. Bradley said the credit should not phase out as quickly as it does now when low-income workers see their incomes rise, and that benefits should be increased for families with three or more children.

-- Increased subsidies for child care. Bradley said the existing child-care tax credit should be made available to low-income families who pay little or no federal taxes.