City Halls Take Up Slack in Family Programs

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EVEN as Republican governors and congressional leaders are pushing for the devolution of power from the federal to state and local levels, cities across the country are spending more on child and family programs.

In the past five years, according to a study released yesterday by the National League of Cities (NLC) and the Child Welfare League of America (CWLA), a majority of US cities increased spending to address such social concerns as family stability, delinquency, and teenage pregnancy.

The survey of 780 municipal governments nationwide found that 96 percent of cities have initiated and expanded collaborative efforts with community groups, nonprofit organizations, and neighboring local governments since 1990. As a result, 35 percent of those cities cited improvements in the living conditions of children and families.

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But in a majority of the cities surveyed, officials said that expected changes in federal and state policies would have a major negative impact on meeting the growing needs of children and families.

''More than 2 million abused, neglected, and at-risk children are served by the nation's child welfare system,'' said David Liederman, CWLA executive director, in prepared statements at a press conference yesterday. ''It is simply unrealistic to think that even the best-intentioned cities could pick up the slack and suitably protect vulnerable child without adequate federal support.''

In the survey, city officials were in broad agreement on the most pressing needs of children and families, namely: child care for toddlers and school children below high school age; affordable housing; and community safety and recreation.

More cities now have programs that focus directly on children and families - 32 percent, up from 28 percent in 1988. Eighty percent of cities fund services to meet those needs through general municipal revenues.

Roughly two-thirds of cities reported declining revenues, however, and 57 percent indicated citizen resistance to new spending. A majority of respondents expressed concern that changes in social policies at the federal and state levels could result in fewer services and stricter eligibility rules.

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