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Future of families: whose American dream?

What has happened to America's . young families with children is unprecedented and almost unimaginable.

Adjusted for inflation, the median income of young families with children plunged by one-third between 1973 and 1990. This median income includes income from all sources, and the drop occurred despite the fact that many families sent a second earner into the workforce. As a result, poverty among young families more than doubled, and by 1990 a shocking 40 percent or 4 in 10 children in young families were poor.

The past two decades have been difficult for many other Americans as well. But older families with children have lost only a little economic ground since 1973, and families without children have enjoyed substantial income gains. By far the greatest share of the nation's economic pain has been focused on the weakest and most vulnerable among us--young families with children.

This is not a story about the current recession, although the recession surely is having crushing impact on your families. Even comparing 1973 to 1989--two good economic years at the end of sustained periods of growth--the median income of young families with children dropped by one-fourth. Then just a few months of the recession in 1990 sent young families' incomes plummeting to new depths.

This is not a story about teenagers. While America's teen pregnancy problem remains tragic and demands an urgent response, only 3 percent of the young families with children we are disscussing are headed by teenagers. More than 70 percent are headed by someone aged 25 to 29. The plight of America's young families is overwhelmingly the plight of young adults who are old enough to assume the responsibilities of parenthood and adulthood, but the road for them is blocked.

Finally and most importantly, this is not simply a story about someone else's children, about minority children or children in single-parent families or children whose parents dropped out of high school.

The tragedy facing young families with children has now reached virtually all of our young families. One in four white children in young families is now poor. And one in three children in families headed by a young high school graduate is now poor. Nearly three-fourths of the increase in poverty among young families since 1973 has occurred outside the nation's central cities. And poverty has grown most rapidly among young families with only one child.

Those consequences include more hunger, more homelessness, more low birthweight births, more infant deaths and more child disability. They mean also more substance abuse, more crime, more violence, more school failure, more teen pregnancy, more racial tension, more envy, more despair and more cynicism--a long-term economic and social disaster for young families and for the country. In virtually every critical area of child development and healthy maturation, family poverty creates huge road-blocks to individual accomplishment, future economic self--sufficiency, and national progress.

The median annual earnings of heads of young families with children fell a staggering 44 percent from 1973 to 1990. In other words, in the span of less than a generation this nation nearly halved the earnings of young household heads with children.

The capacity to support a family has a powerful impact on the marrigae decisions of young people. More than two centuries ago Benjamin Franklin wrote: "The number of greater in proportion to the ease and convenience of supporting a family. When families can be easily supported, more persons marry, and earlier in life."

The changes of the last two decades have had a very profound impact on minority young families, families, especially those that are black. The median earnings of the heads of young black families with children fell 71 percent from 1973 to 1990 (from $13,860 to $4,030 in 1990 dollars). Their total family income from all sources fell 48 percent. The median income of these young black families is now below the federal poverty line for a family of three. In 1973 it was nearly double that poverty line. Two out of three children in young black families now are poor.

This crisis for young black families is contributing mightily to the tearing apart of the black community. This society cannot year after year increase the poverty and isolation and hopelessness of black mothers and fathers and children--it can't keep turning the screws tighter and tighter--without appaling consequences. We see those consequences in the emergency rooms and unemployment lines and prisons and homeless shelters and neonatal intensive care wards and morgues of out cities and our suburbs and rural towns.

We see it in the omnipresent violence that destroys so many black lives and leaves blacks and whites alike so fearful. More blacks die from firamrs each year in this county that died in the century's worth of despicable lynchings that followed the Civil War. More black men die from firearms every six weeks in Detroit than died in the 1967 Detroit "riot." More black and Hispanic men die from firearms in Los Angeles every two weeks than died in the 1965 Watts "riots."

Perhaps the most important story told in this report is the impact of two decades of this Depression for the young on three type of families we often assume are insulated from hard times:

* From 1973 to 1990 the poverty rate for children living in young white families more than doubled to 27 percent.

* From 1973 to 1990 the poverty rate for children in young married-couple families went up 2 1/2 times--to 20 percent.

* And the child poverty rate in young families headed by high school graduates went up even faster, to 33 percent.

What response do we see to these problems from private and public leadership? Precious little. Too much of the business community in wholly untroubled by stripping away from millions of Americans the minimum family-supporting wages, fringe benefits and job security that could help make our families strong again.

The Congress can't mount the political will to get Heat Start--a program universally conceded to be effective and cost-effective--to more than one in three eligible children or to pass the refundable children's tax credit that experts from all parts of the political spectrum think is a minimum first step to tax equity and family economic security.

Finally, far too many of the nation's governors and state and national legislators have responded to budget crunches and political turmoil by scapegoating the poor--trying to bolster their political fortunes by pummeling the welfare recipients whose assistance gobbles up a grant total of 2 to 3 percent of state budgets.

Congress and the President must take three immediate steps in 1992 to ensure that every child has a Fair Start, a Healthy Start and a Head Start.

A Fair Start means renewed and sustained economic growth and enough jobs at decent wages to restore the pact our nation used to have with young families--that personal sacrifice and hard work will be rewarded with family supporting jobs. A Fair Start also means enactment of a refundable children's tax credit to bolster the incomes of families with children.

A Fair Start means creation of a child support insurance systems to give all single parents the chance to lift their families out of poverty through work, ensuring that all children who are not living with both parents receive a minimally adequate child support payment from the absent parent or the government when it fails to collect from the absent parent.

What we don't need in this time of great crisis for young families with children is a negative approach rooted in welfare-bashing and welfare cuts that ends up hurting children. Families on welfare are the victims of the recession, not the cause of it. They are victims of budget deficits, not the cause of them. But nearly one-fourth of all young families with children are forced to rely upon AFDC to meet their basic needs, and they are extremely vulnerable to misguided attacks on this essential safety net for children.

There are ways we can and must improve welfare. For example, we agree with the Administration that welfare parents often don't have enough financial incentives to work because current welfare rules strip them of virtually all of their earnings when they do work. That is why we opposed the repeal of earnings incentives by President Reagan and the Congress in 1981, and why we think they should be restored now for all welfare families, not just those in a few demonstration counties.

But most of the welfare "reforms" now underway in states are little more than crass attempts to slash state budgets without regard to their impact on families with children. Reducing or stopping benefits to newborns when they are the second or third child in a family, as now proposed by several states, is punitive, pointless, and immoral. Only political leaders who are hopelessly out of touch with the realities of poor families' lives could think that an extra #2.50 per day in welfare benefits would cause teen parents to have a second child, or that reducing the added benefit to $1.25/day (as Governor of Wisconsin and the President now propose for that state) constitutes any serious effort at welfare reform. All they will succeed in doing is taking desperately needed food, clothing and shelter from infants.

The problem is not large numbers of welfare parents trying to "beat the system" by having more children or moving to another state to get higher benefits. The problem is a set of shortsighted, budget driven welfare rules that make it virtually imposibble for parents to work their way gradually off the welfare rolls and a dearth of stable, family-supporting jobs that would allow them to make it on their own.

A Healthy Start means a national health plan to assure insurance coverage for all Americans. Children and pregnant women need basic health care now, however. As an immediate step, the president and Congress must extend Medic-aid coverage to every low-income child and pregnant woman. And to ensure that this insurance provides real access to essential health services, not merely theoretical coverage, children need universal access to vaccines and increased funding for community health centers, and other public health activities.

A Head Start means full funding of Head Start. A first step in bolstering the productivity of our next generation of workers lies in adequate investments in quality child are and early childhood development. Every dollar invested in good early childhood development programs saves $5.97 in later special education, welfare, crime and other costs. Yet Head Start still reaches only one in three eligible preschool children.

In response to a distant tyrant we setn hundreds of thousands of American mothers and fathers, sons and daughters to the Persian Gulf, in order, according to Secretary of State Baker, to protect our lifestyle and standards of living and the rights of the Kuwaiti people.

No budget rule or deficit or recession was allowed to stand in the way. How then can we reconcile failing to engage equally the enimies of poverty and violence and family disintegration and under-education withing our own nation?
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Title Annotation:speech excerpts
Author:Edelman, Marian Wright
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Date:Apr 20, 1992
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