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Bush tries to enlist single moms for his tax-cut army and GOP

By SARA FRITZ

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 12, 2001


WASHINGTON -- There was a time when Democrats felt they owned the loyalty of single mothers such as Debora Meskauskas because they were the champions of initiatives supported by low-income women, including family leave, minimum wage increases and abortion rights.

But last week, Meskauskas, an employee of the public library system in Arlington Heights, Ill., showed up at the White House alongside Republican President Bush.

A mother of two teenagers, she praised Bush's tax-cut proposal, which she estimated would trim her taxes by $1,000.

"My children and I need this tax cut and we need it now," Meskauskas told Bush.

Under Bush's leadership, Republicans are trying to identify with women such as Meskauskas. Single moms have become the centerpiece of Bush's aggressive strategy to sell his proposal for a $1.6-trillion across-the-board tax cut.

By portraying his tax cut as a boon for single moms, Bush is hoping to undercut Democrats' argument that his proposal is designed primarily as a giveaway to a traditional Republican constituency: the rich.

But the president has another objective as well. Pollster John Zogby said Bush is courting low-income, working women in an effort to broaden his support.

"The single mom is a very important swing voter, and polls show that this is a group he can capture," Zogby said. "He's got to do it, whether it works or not."

Clearly, Republicans have come a long way since Vice President Dan Quayle blamed single mothers in general -- and television character Murphy Brown, in particular -- for contributing to a moral decline in the nation.

Among Democrats, however, the president's bold appeal to single moms is seen as hypocrisy.

On the same day that Meskauskas appeared at the White House with Bush, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., scolded the Republicans for failing to support an increase in the minimum wage, which he noted is an important issue for single mothers.

Bush disagrees with the traditionally Democratic constituency of low-income women on many issues. Zogby says these women were particularly annoyed by the president's choice of former Sen. John Ashcroft for attorney general because he embraces a kind of rigid conservative religious doctrine that scares them.

On taxes, Democrats contend that Bush has been forced to stretch the facts in order to make his tax-cut proposal seem appealing to low-income single moms.

In his campaign, Bush often said his tax-cut proposal would be a good thing for a single waitress, with two children, earning $22,000 a year. More recently, however, whenever he uses such an example, the annual salary of this hypothetical single mom waitress is $25,000.

Al Davis, an economist employed by Democrats on the House Ways and Means Committee, says the president was forced to raise the fictional woman's salary by $3,000 because a taxpayer earning as little as $22,000 is not likely to owe the government income tax. Therefore, she would not benefit from the president's proposal.

The president's proposal applies only to those who pay income taxes. It is not "refundable," meaning that you do not benefit if you do not owe money to the government.

Davis said a woman with two children earning $25,000 would be more likely to reap some benefit from the president's proposal, mostly because it would double the child-care credit of $500. However, he noted, this would not happen until 2006.

But even at an annual salary of $25,000, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the single waitress with two children is not certain to get a tax cut.

"If this waitress pays at least $170 a month in child care costs so she can work and support her family -- an amount that represents a rather modest expenditure for child care -- she, too, would receive no tax cut under the Bush plan despite having a significant net tax burden," the center said in its analysis. "In her case as well, her payroll taxes would exceed her EITC (earned income tax credit) by $2,325."

On Friday, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer acknowledged somewhat grudgingly during his daily news briefing that the salary of the president's hypothetical waitress had to be raised to make her a beneficiary.

Fleischer joked: "He's raising incomes for American people since he was elected, obviously."

As for Meskauskas, Fleischer declined to specify her annual salary. But he acknowledged that her $1,000 windfall would result from the president's proposal to raise the child tax credit $500 for each dependent -- not from the lowering of income tax rates.

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