`American apartheid'?. Impoverished families: they are us

Families in Peril: An Agenda for Social Change, by Marian Wright Edelman. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 127 pp. $15. THIRTEEN million children now live in poverty in the United States. To grasp the magnitude of that figure, imagine that every resident of Los Angeles (pop., 8 million) and every resident of Chicago's Cook County (pop., 5 million) is a poor child under the age of 18. Then consider that every 53 minutes one of those children dies as a result of poverty. Over a five-year period, that adds up to more poverty-related deaths among American children than the total number of American battle deaths during the Vietnam war.

These statistics provide a chilling commentary on the priorities of the world's richest nation. Yet poverty, according to Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund, is not an insoluble problem. Americans do not lack the resources to improve the lives of poor families, she charges. What they need is the will and the leadership.

In ``Families in Peril,'' Mrs. Edelman makes an articulate plea for a stronger will and a better use of resources to help black and white families alike. For poverty, she emphasizes, knows no color barrier, despite stereotypes and prejudices to the contrary.

Edelman criticizes those who hold the view ``that the poor are basically different from the rest of us, and that their problems stem primarily from some alleged lack of motivation or effort.... They are not somehow fundamentally different. They are us, with less income, and sometimes less education.''

They are us. For that reason, she believes, the nation must unite in a stronger ``we'' to avoid the dangers of ``a new American apartheid'' that separates rich and poor, white and black, old and young.

Edelman outlines the diverse causes of poverty: changes in the economy, stagnant wages, federal tax and budget policies that favor the rich, and changing family demographics that leave 1 American child in 5 living in a female-headed household and 1 in 4 dependent on welfare at some point in a lifetime.

She also proposes diverse solutions for putting ``a floor of decency under every American family,'' beginning with a national sense of obligation.

``The first step in bringing about change is caring,'' she writes. ``The second step is trying to see a problem whole and then breaking it into manageable pieces for action.''

Those ``manageable pieces'' include measures to improve health, nutrition, and child care for poor children, along with a comprehensive campaign to prevent teen pregnancy. In a memorable sentence Edelman writes that ``hope and opportunity and a sense of usefulness are the primary contraceptives this nation must provide for all its young.'' Aid to Families with Dependent Children must be increased, she says, and Congress must require states to provide AFDC benefits to two-parent families if the breadwinner is unemployed. Currently half the states deny aid to two-parent families, a practice that many child advocates believe encourages the breakup of families.

In addition, Edelman wants the minimum wage raised to $4.25 an hour to enable parents to support families. She wants black joblessness to become a top priority in public-policy agendas. And she wants a sharper focus on teens - through education, job training, and health care - to prevent dependent boys of 10 or 12 from growing into dependent men of 25 or 30.

Edelman assures readers that she supports a strong national defense. But she rails against an administration that she believes puts more emphasis on the enemy without than on the enemies within: hunger, homelessness, joblessness, despair. Since 1980, she notes, Congress has increased the military budget by $624 billion while stripping $50 billion from programs for poor children and families. Within the next five years, she adds, children could lose another $33 billion in federal support, even as the Defense Department gains $385 billion.

Stopping the clock on the military budget for one minute, she calculates, would pay for 14,000 monthly food packages for pregnant women and infants through the Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children. Just seven days' worth of military spending would fund Head Start for every eligible child, rather than the 16 percent now served.

At a time when pro-family rhetoric too often translates into anti-family policies, Edelman's recommendations will not be enthusiastically embraced in all quarters. Yet she is content to take the long view, arguing that time and patience are essential. Quick fixes, she warns, do not work.

She sums up her pragmatic philosophy simply, almost poetically. ``The Bible is replete with the images and power of small things which achieve great ends when they are grounded in faith: a mustard seed, a jawbone, a stick, a slingshot, a widow's mite. We must not, in trying to think about how we can make a big difference, ignore the small daily differences we can make which, over time, add up to big differences that we often cannot foresee.''

Do not be put off by the barrage of statistics Edelman fires at the beginning, or intimidated by the university press imprint. This is a small, readable book with a large, urgent message - one that needs and deserves all the readers and attention it can get.

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