McCain, Obama and Kids

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Where do John McCain and Barack Obama stand on issues that affect youth?

Advocacy groups such as the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA) and the Every Child Matters Education Fund (ECMEF) have been asking that question for months. They sent letters and e-mails to the McCain and Obama campaigns, commissioned polls that show how much American voters care about these issues – about 60 percent of all voters say spending on children’s issues is a higher priority than tax cuts, according to a poll commissioned by ECMEF – and held rallies and forums to push children’s issues into the public eye, if not in the faces of the candidates.

The result? A mix of answers and non-answers.

Regardless of one’s political leanings, this much becomes clear in asking the two major party candidates for their positions on youth issues: The Obama campaign provides plans and some details, while the McCain campaign generally doesn’t answer.

The Obama campaign’s website and literature are filled with detailed plans for almost every specific area affecting children and youth. The McCain campaign site and literature are filled with generic statements about “strengthening” or “improving” programs from college loans to children’s health care.

Youth Today asked McCain’s campaign to elaborate on various issues, including early childhood education and No Child Left Behind. The campaign initially said it would provide answers, then 12 days later said it was “unable to accommodate your request at this time.”

The CWLA has peppered both campaigns with inquires about child welfare ­– including the care of foster children, how to prevent child abuse and whether the candidate would increase the child welfare work force. The league plans to post the answers, if they come, on its website (

McCain’s staff has not responded to the CWLA’s request to support a White House Conference on Children and Youth in 2010, championed by the CWLA and backed by hundreds of other organizations. Obama is a co-sponsor of legislation to create a conference.

Both candidates avoid detailing how they would pay for some of their proposals.

From the Mouths of …

Campaign speeches often become rote during the long election season, but nomination acceptance speeches often provide insight into the candidates’ priorities.

In his acceptance speech, Republican McCain paid scant attention to children’s issues; Obama zeroed in on several major children’s issues, but they were far from the focus on his speech to the Democrats.

McCain mentioned increasing the per-child tax exemption from $3,500 to $7,000 – to help fulfill his pledge for “reducing government spending and getting rid of failed programs [that] will let you keep more of your own money to save, spend and invest as you see fit.”

He lightly touched on his overall school plan, including his support for school vouchers, saying, “We need to shake up the failed school bureaucracies with competition, empower parents with choice, remove barriers to qualified instructors, attract and reward good teachers and help bad teachers find another line of work.”

Obama made improved education a tenet of his overall campaign message, saying that government should “protect us from harm and provide every child a decent education; keep our water clean and our toys safe; invest in new schools, and new roads, and science and technology.”

McCain does not address early childhood education in his campaign materials.

Obama has focused on what he calls his “Zero to 5” program and his plans for national service, saying he’ll “invest in early childhood education” and “recruit an army of new teachers, and pay them higher salaries, and give them more support. And in exchange, I’ll ask for higher standards and more accountability.”

He has said that if young Americans commit themselves to community and national service, “we will make sure you can afford a college education.” Both candidates attended a forum about national service in New York last month, held to launch a campaign for a massive increase in government-backed service programs. (See story, October 2008.)

Obama has also touched on the effects of immigration law enforcement on American-born children of illegal immigrants, saying, “You know, passions may fly on immigration, but I don’t know anyone who benefits when a mother is separated from her infant child.”

Aside from the chart accompanying this story, comparisons are available from the Brookings Institution (; search for “candidates on children”) and the National Association of Child Care Research and Referral Agencies (; search for “candidate positions”).