Children in want

IT is deeply disconcerting to learn that the number of children living in poverty in America has grown by some 3 million the past decade and a half, even while the total number of children has decreased by 9 million. Even after allowing for differences in measuring income and poverty since the 1960s, a significant increase in the number of children living in want is conclusive, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service and the Congressional Budget Office. In comparative studies of some 20 years ago, benefits in medicaid and food stamps were not the factors they are today, nor were taxes.

In recent years the real value of federal aid to children has declined. Demographic changes have occurred, with more households headed by single women and more unmarried mothers. The base figures work back from 1983, the latest year for which statistics were complete, when the United States was coming out of a recession. Despite these complicating factors, a worsening pattern of children in want emerges.

We know more about poor children in some regards. Among the poor at any given time, some do not stay poor very long; in divorced families, for instance, mothers may eventually gain training and find work. Of children living in poverty at some point over 12 or 15 years, two-thirds are poor for fewer than four years. However, 1 in 7 stays poor for a decade or longer; most of these live in the South and in rural areas, not in the urban North as is commonly believed.

Not surprisingly, no single solution suggests itself for addressing child poverty as a public issue. Congress finds itself in two fundamental dilemmas. Politically it faces enormously large budget deficits and a lack of interest in higher taxes; it is still fighting the advanced stages of assault on the Great Society programs of the 1960s and does not yet see the field ready for another major political initiative. Practically, it sees a conflict in providing more resources to children, which in turn can reduce the incentive for parents to work.

Clusters of solutions can be considered, however. Current tax reform proposals could include a refundable credit to low income families; there is now reasonable agreement that the poor should pay less in income taxes, and thus the zero bracket group or the personal exemption could be increased. There is some support for setting a combined national minimum level for Aid to Families with Dependent Children and food stamps at 65 percent or more of the poverty threshold -- currently $8,000 in income for a family of three.

In jobs assistance, targeted job tax credits to increase the demand for low-paid workers are showing results in increasing the number of jobs. Debate continues over the utility of a subminimum wage: While the pool of jobs for teen-agers may be increased, the supply of jobs for older youths or adults who may be parents trying to support children may actually decrease, analysts say. A general drop in lower-scale wages could mean less income generally for the group intended to be helped.

Since poverty appears to produce a self-perpetuating cycle, there is reason to alleviate conditions for those who now endure neglect, who require foster care, or who must address the challenge of a teen pregnancy. Obviously, education is a factor. In many big-city schools fewer than half who enter high school ever graduate -- and many who receive degrees are functionally illiterate.

Society can seem to look right at its poor and never really see them. Advertising and the media now are taken with the Yuppies, the prosperous croissant-for-breakfast crowd who are bidding up in-town real estate. Political strategists are focusing on the middle class, hoping to attract the working American's allegiance to tax reform and other ``populist'' programs. Who are children's advocates?

One in 5 children today is poor, some 14 million in all. Certainly, whether for those in transient straits or those in long-term poverty, whose needs differ, society can come forward with something more than an unseeing eye and a cold shoulder.

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