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Let poor children form the ark of Clinton's new covenant.

Next week a new administration takes office and a lot of Americans, especially some of the most impoverished among us, are looking toward that change with more hope than they have been able to muster for going on a generation. No matter how wet the blanket the Clinton crowd tugs over campaign expectations, the expectations are still there, and rightly so.

Much of the social engine needs fixing in the wake of the Reagan-Bush years, from health care to housing, but there is no wrong more shameful, no indictment of what we have become as a nation more telling than the outrageous number of American children living in poverty. Fix that, and much of the rest will follow; fail to fix it, and what follows most of us will not want.

Overall, according to a 1991 U.S. Census Bureau study, poverty in the United States is more severe and more widely distributed among all age groups than in any other industrialized nation. But children are the most vulnerable, and they bear far more than their share of the deprivation.

Between 1979 and 1989, for example, there was a 21 percent leap in child poverty, a trend the Children's Defense Fund says will only worsen in the current decade unless we move now to stop it.

In 1990, according to the CDF, 40 percent of children in families headed by someone under 30 lived in poverty, about double the percentage in 1973. As far as those children are concerned -- and we are talking about millions of them -- the Reagan boom years never happened.

Of the 3.5 million additional children condemned to poverty during the 1979-83 recession years, to use another CDF example, only slightly more than a million were lifted above the poverty line in the economic recovery that followed. rest are still mired in misery, join these past few years by brothers and sisters almost beyond telling. Whatever weak recovery may be under way at

the moment will work no wonders for them.

Black, white, Latino -- no child is immune. The white non-Latino poverty rate rocketed from 12.1 to 27.2 percent in less than 20 years, 1973-90. Latin rates are outpacing even that. Of all Latino children, more than a third live in poverty.

Many of those new victims are under age 6, when deprivation can do the most damage to their development. Nearly two-thirds of those young families are headed by females, and more than 40 percent of all poor children "live in families with incomes of less than half the poverty line, or $7,232 for a family of four in 1992," according to Bread for the World's 1993 hunger report.

These devastating realities call all of us to account, but what, many ask, can we do before poverty saps still more of our national vigor and flings our young people deeper into violence and despair? CDF summarizes a few practical possibilities:

1. Raise the minimum wage to give working families an adequate income.

2. Institute refundable child tax credits.

3. Create a federal child-support assurance policy that will let the government step in with adequate aid if a father cannot or will not pay child support.

Irresponsible parents should be pursued and prosecuted. But let them pay for their sins, not their children.

These are all realistic possibilities that transcend the current welfare system. Similar programs are working in other countries, and they could be implemented here in short order. All it would take is national will.

Maybe a new administration will help generate that spirit, but it will clearly have a long row to hoe.

Americans want change, but most of them do not want to spend much to create it, and they do not want to pay more taxes. What we need is something this country has lacked for a long time -- a common purpose, a common project, to drive us beyond our fear, our selfishness and insecurity. The Panamas and Persian Gulfs do not work for long even for flag-wavers, because their truth is specious, their logic suspect and their real impact far from home.

There was subdued optimism at CDF headquarters in Washington the other day, optimism based on the hope that Congress, the new administration and the nation as a whole are finally ready to "pull together for children." Could children form the base of a common project with more of a future?
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Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jan 15, 1993
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