In the late stages of last night’s Democratic-primary debate, the presidential candidate Senator Kirsten Gillibrand brought up a short newspaper article published in 1981.
The article, written by one Joseph R. Biden, was an op-ed arguing against a tax credit that would help families pay for child care. Biden, then a senator representing Delaware, made the case that by encouraging more high-earning parents to send their kids to day care, such a tax credit would, among other things, lead to “the deterioration of the family.”
On the debate stage, Gillibrand insisted that this was evidence of Biden’s opposition to working mothers; Biden defended himself by focusing on his fiscal objections to the tax credit and by pointing to his own political record when it comes to women (which, coincidentally, Gillibrand has previously praised).
But the document in question is a strange one—a perplexing collection of roughly 600 words that veers from fiscal critique to moral outcry, and pulls off on the side of the argumentative road to bemoan “the cancer of materialism” that convinces Americans that they need to send their kids to day care so that they can work more and buy more stuff.
Nearly 40 years after its publication, the op-ed is a bit hard to parse. What precisely did Biden mean when he asserted that it was a lapse of “personal responsibility” for couples to send their kids to day care so that they could both go to work? Was he talking about the shortcomings of working women, or of American parents in general? Biden’s op-ed could be interpreted in multiple ways, but situating it in the context of the early 1980s can shed some light on what he might have been trying to say, and what his blind spots were at the time.