LOOKING FOR A family value issue nearly everyone agrees upon in this presidential campaign year? Try adoption.

Politicians are stepping over themselves to support a bill in Congress which provides a $5,000 tax credit for adoptive parents and puts an end to enforcing a stipulation that African-American children must be matched with adoptive parents of the same race. It has the support of pro-life Congressmen who see it as a means of discouraging abortion in favor of adoption. And, soon after President Clinton announced his support for the proposal, Hillary Clinton even hinted that the First Family might adopt a child.

Under the proposed law, families with incomes below $75,000 per year would be able to claim the full $5,000 tax credit. Families earning more would have a phased-down benefit which would end at an earned income of $115,000 per year.

“It will increase the pool of people able to afford the cost of adoption,” said Patrick Purtill, director of government relations for the National Center for Adoption, a Washington, D.C., lobbying group that has pushed hard for the measure.

Purtill said the tax break is designed to ease the burdens of private adoptions which can cost up to $20,000. He predicted that the bill, expected to cost the U.S. government $1.7 billion in seven years, will enable more lower- and middle-income parents to adopt. The tax break, he said, should also increase the pool of minority adoptive parents, helping to address another issue raised by the bill.

The proposed law would end the practice of requiring black children to be adopted by black parents. The result of such practices—which grew in the past 20 years after a black social workers’ group called interracial adoption “cultural genocide” —has been a growth in the number of minority children languishing in the foster care system. According to Purtill, nearly half of all children in foster care are black and there are not enough black parents willing or able to adopt them, he said.

The bill now under discussion would encourage black children to be matched with black parents. But in the absence of such a match, non-black parents would be allowed to adopt them.

Retaining some racial consideration in the adoption process alleviated the concerns of Charles Rangel, a black New York City Congressman and a Catholic, who had opposed the bill in its original race-neutral form. “We are reading from the same page,” Rangel told The New York Timesabout himself and conservative supporters of the measure.

Rangel expressed concern that black children in interracial adoptions suffer from a poor sense of racial identity. But Purtill noted that a series of studies in the past 25 years reveal that black children adopted by white families have done well and have been able to develop a racial identity.

James McBride, a mixed-race writer whose The Color of Watermemoir is dedicated to his white Jewish mother, noted in a recent New York Times op-ed piece that “for once, our politicians have got it right. Mixed-race families and inter-racial adoption have long been a fact of life.”

Addressing critics who argue that inter-racial adoption prevents black children from developing a healthy racial identity, McBride wrote, “I'd rather see a black child holding the hand of a white yuppie mom and talking, thinking and acting ‘ white’(whatever that is) than being bounced around foster homes and never knowing real love.”

While most social workers involved with adoptions praise the new legislation, some say it doesn't go far enough in addressing the real problems that make it difficult for children to get adopted.

In fact, the tax credit provisions will do nothing to assist children to get adopted through agencies such as the New York Foundling Hospital, said Andrew Mayernik, director of the adoption department there.

The Foundling, a Sisters of Charity agency, deals exclusively with adoptions of hard-to-place children—many of them handicapped, older or with emotional problems. “We try to recruit families but we have a hard time,” said Mayernik. The agency has worked through groups such as One Church, One Child, an organization run by Chicago priest Father George Clements, who is an adoptive father himself and who has tried to interest African-American Church congregations in adopting hard-to-place minority children. Most of the children cared for by the New York Foundling Hospital are African-American.

According to Mayernik, racial considerations are still a priority with many white adoptive parents. “My experience is that they are asking for white or Hispanic children. I don't find many couples asking for black children,” he said.

Because of the difficulties in adoption, one focus of the Foundling is counseling parents who have lost their children due to abuse and other problems. According to Mayernik, adults—even those with a poor parenting record—can learn to be good parents.

But Sister Josephine Murphy, director of St. Ann's Infant and Maternity Home in Hyattsville, Md., outside Washington, D.C., said such an approach is dangerous to the well-being of children. Sister Murphy, a Daughter of Charity, said that adoption is preferable to “sending abused children back to abusive homes.”

“We have to look at the best interest of the child,” added Sister Murphy, whose agency takes in children from troubled homes from the District of Columbia and its nearby Maryland suburbs. And, she said, that should mean a stronger reliance on adoption because “not all families can be fixed.” Keeping the present adoption system intact will be disastrous, she argued. “We will have to build more jails” if nothing is done.

While the adoption bill has generated a rare presidential-Congressional family values lovefest, it still has a few critics. Some describe its use of tax credits as a fiscal gimmick, a point raised in a recent editorial in The New Republic, which pointed out that such credits will drain the treasury. And some child welfare advocates argue that it will divert attention from the necessity of finding homes for hard-to-place children, particularly the older and handicapped, as well as minorities.

And changes in the law making adoption of Native American children less restrictive have again given rise to accusations of cultural genocide, this time by tribal leaders.

But observers expect something will happen. In an election year, few politicians want to be seen as obstructing the happiness of an orphan and a beaming set of adoptive parents. The president and his Republican congressional foes may well believe the adoption changes are the right thing to do. Besides, few issues offer more fertile material for election-year photo-ops.

Peter Feuerherd is based in New York.