Children's needs

AMERICANS have received a sharp reminder of the dimension of the challenges poor children, especially those of minority races, often face. The reminder comes from the Children's Defense Fund. Among other things it finds that the overwhelming majority of all single mothers under 25 are likely to be poor; that only 4 in 10 black children and 8 in 10 white children live in two-parent families; that 55 percent of all births to black women are out of wedlock; and that birthrates for black teens, which have begun to decline, are five times those for white teens, which are rising. Over the past five years, the report concludes, black children have been ``sliding backward'' compared with white children.

In the past two decades the United States has made enormous progress in addressing the undefendable inequities its minority citizens long have faced. And it has significantly improved the situation for people at the low end of the economic scale, through programs which have helped lift many out of poverty.

Yet much remains to be done: sufficient and affordable housing, adequate education, more access to fulfilling careers.

Even more vital is strengthening the family, black or white, Hispanic or American Indian. It is also a requirement across the American income scale.

Over the past two decades several antipoverty government programs were enacted, in good faith, which wound up harming family life. Many have been reversed, but some remain. They should be changed so that they strengthen, not weaken, the family.

Several sectors of society should redouble their efforts to help: individuals, families, businesses, and government at all levels.

Neither Congress nor state governments should cut additional programs that provide effective and economical aid to poor children. It is unwise to save modest sums of money in the short run, only to wind up paying out much larger amounts later.

Tax relief for the poor, as proposed in the Reagan administration's reform package, will help many.

Community organizations, relatives, and policymakers all should give priority to helping prevent teenage pregnancy, which so often crimps a young woman's economic future.

``Critical to an effective adolescent pregnancy strategy is hope,'' notes the fund's director, Marion Wright Edelman. ``Young people need positive alternatives -- decent schooling and employment.''

They also need more secure ethical and religious moorings than society now offers.

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