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FACT CHECK: Gillibrand Attacks Biden On 1981 'Deterioration Of The Family' Op-Ed

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York questioned former Vice President Joe Biden about his past comments concerning the child care tax credit during the second night of the Democratic primary debates in Detroit.
Jim Watson
AFP/Getty Images
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York questioned former Vice President Joe Biden about his past comments concerning the child care tax credit during the second night of the Democratic primary debates in Detroit.

Updated at 1:13 a.m. ET

Wednesday night, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand blasted Joe Biden for a 1980s position on the child care tax credit and a comment he wrote about the "deterioration of the family."

Here's what Gillibrand said:

"I want to address the vice president directly. When the Senate was debating middle-class affordability for child care, he wrote an op-ed. He voted against it, the only vote. But, when he — he wrote an op-ed, was that he believed that women working outside the home would create the 'deterioration' of family. He also said that women who were working outside the home were avoiding 'responsibility.' "

In the exchange, Gillibrand talked about being a working mom needing child care, and Biden spoke about raising his children as a single dad.

Gillibrand continued, directed at Biden: "Am I, serving in Congress, resulting in the deterioration of family because I had access to quality, affordable day care? I just want to know what he meant when he said that."

Biden hit back: "That was a long time ago, and here's what it was about. It would have given people making today $100,000 a year a tax break for child care. I did not want that."

The quote originates with a position Biden took on the child care tax credit in the 1980s and an op-ed he wrote back then — but there's a more complicated story than Gillibrand conveyed.

HuffPost's Amanda Terkel and Arthur Delaney dug into it in detail here. In 1981, Congress was considering expanding the child care tax credit, and Biden was the only senator who voted against it. That wasn't because he opposed the credit altogether, Terkel and Delaney note; it's because he didn't want the tax credit to go to couples earning more than $30,000 (which equals just over $88,000 in today's dollars).

The "deterioration of the family" quote comes from an op-ed Biden wrote in August 1981 for Salisbury, Md.'s The Daily Times,according to Gillibrand's campaign. Her team tweeted it:

The actual quote in the op-ed was: "A recent act of Congress puts the federal government in the position, through the tax codes, of subsidizing the deterioration of the family. That is tragic."

Here's what Biden more precisely said: He was arguing that a higher-earning couple didn't need this government benefit. To make that argument, he opined about what effects such a policy might have, like encouraging both partners in a higher-earning couple to work outside the home, at a time when men worked outside the home far more often than women — even more than they do today:

"What I do not accept as legitimate is social policy that encourages a couple making $30,000, $40,000, $50,000 or more a year to evade full responsibility for their children by granting them a tax credit for day-care expenses. ...

"I do not believe that the federal government should be a party to a system which encourages couples to place their children in day-care centers in order to acquire material possessions that go far beyond any family basic necessities. ... We do not take care of our own families these days; we want someone else to bear that responsibility."

It's an argument about higher-earning people getting government benefits, but Gillibrand has also latched onto the fact that it's an argument framed around taking "responsibility" for taking care of children — and women, then as now, shouldered more of that responsibility.

That said, the Biden campaign pointed to a quote from the same time period (but not from the op-ed), and noted by HuffPost, in which Biden said he did "not care whether in a modern marriage you want the man or the woman to take that responsibility."

As the exchange lumbered on, Biden defended his record on gender equality and accused Gillibrand of hitting his record on women now just because she's running for president. "I'm passionate about the concern, making sure women are treated equally," he said. "I don't know what's happened except you're now running for president."

Gillibrand repeatedly went back to the "deterioration of the family" quote.

As the moderators tried to cut her off, Gillibrand told Biden: "You said women working outside the home would lead to the deterioration of family. ... Either he no longer believes it ..."

Biden finally offered, "I never believed it."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.