Poverty can't be forgotten

NOT too surprisingly, a new study by a Washington think tank finds that poverty among blacks in the United States rose last year despite the ongoing economic recovery. Income disparities between black and white Americans widened; more blacks are employed, but most are stuck in low-paying jobs. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the earnings of the average black family declined slightly in 1987 to $18,098. The average white family's income rose from $31,935 to $32,274.

Such figures confirm that whatever trickles down from overall economic growth gets thinner the lower it goes. The cup is emptier for those near the bottom - where plenty of whites reside as well as blacks. But the poor still make up only a small portion of US society, and they tend to be forgotten at a time of relative ease for most Americans. Forgotten until something reminds us that the problems of decrepit inner-city schools, filled with promising black kids whose families are mired in poverty, need to be a national priority - and that too many of those same young people end up in our already bulging prisons.

The message comes, too, from disturbing recent figures about the infant mortality rate in the US - the worst among 20 industrialized nations. The rate is highest among poorer Americans who have little access to prenatal care. Hunger is another indicator. A governor's task force in Washington found that about a third of children from low-income families in that state suffer from poor nutrition.

What's the answer to poverty in the world's wealthiest nation? Probably not another wave of federal antipoverty programs, given current budget strictures. Few Americans retain much faith that such programs work, in any case. The prevailing political wisdom, on both sides of the aisle, seems to be that economic growth and greater employment are the best ways to fight poverty.

But is it enough to stand back and let the economy do its wonders? How will growth reach the ghetto kids, or the rural poor, who live outside the economic mainstream?

Poverty doesn't strike the political spark it once did, but it remains on the American conscience and agenda. And the country's political leadership still has an important role to fill in the fight against poverty.

The president, Congress, and state leaders should make sure the problems of poverty - which mesh with those of lagging economic competitiveness and inadequate education - remain in the public eye. And they should see to it that the portion of public resources directed toward education, health care, nutrition, and community development is effectively used.

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