Congress and children

The family is a resilient institution, far beyond what is generally believed. Yet the American family is under extraordinary stress, partly owing to government policies that can be corrected. These are not just our views but those of the head of the US House of Representatives' new Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families. And, please, before you say, oh, not another committee, note the magnitude of the challenge and what Rep. George Miller of California proposes to do about it after eight years' experience with children's issues in Congress.

Thirteen million American children are living in jobless families, many of them headed by women. A million children between 5 and 13 years old have no adult supervision after school. There were a million divorces last year, and a million more are expected this year. The number of households made up of unmarried couples has risen fourfold since 1970 to almost two million, 3 percent of the total. Ninety percent of one-parent families are headed by women. The number of them headed by never-married women has climbed by almost 370 percent.

Meanwhile, to consider only the question of mothers in poverty, there have been cutbacks in various government nutrition programs. Mr. Miller cites three different programs in the hands of three different committees that were cut without the committees talking it over with each other. Sometimes one dependent family turned out to be affected by two or three of the cuts.

It only takes an average $100 to ensure minimum nutrition for a woman during her full term of pregnancy. Mr. Miller argues it is cheaper to make such investments in nutritional support than to finance the potentially larger outlays for future remedial care of children who did not have proper prenatal nurture.

The thrust of his concern is to protect America's great resource of children by helping more of them succeed - and thus having to pay less for failure, less for crime. As they grow, more should succeed in school, more in jobs, more in their own family life. The federal government is not the key, he says, but it can help. It is not just a matter of spending taxpayers' money. It is fostering private, nonprofit, and community support. It is enlisting individuals to draw on that great resilience he sees in the institution of the family.

What can his committee do, once it is ready to announce hearings? As a select committee it cannot legislate. But it can see whether legislation is doing what it is supposed to do, whether new legislation is demanded, on the basis of bringing together information about just what the present-day needs are. It will give first priority to children and families, while the 13 standing committees with some jurisdiction over such issues - Armed Services, for example - simply have to work them in with other things.

Congressman Miller already has found exceptions to the conventional wisdom. For instance, some places that closed schools because fewer children were predicted now find they may have closed too many as older women begin to have more babies.

Then there is the impact of unemployment on families and children. Not to mention the changing employment picture, with more women in the work force, fewer people in lifetime jobs, more need for education preparing people for the jobs requirements of the future.

At the moment there is a ''children's gap,'' says Mr. Miller, meaning a gap between the rhetoric of Congress and what it is really prepared to do for children and families. Maybe one more committee will not close such a gap. But is there really any more important cause to set up a committee for?

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