SEVEN years ago, when Cecilia Suarez fled El Salvador to join relatives in the United States, she expected to leave behind the fear that had shadowed her steps in that politically volatile country. But now she has fallen into a second predicament, all too common in her adopted land: She has become a single parent. With no job and limited English, she must depend on a $472 welfare check every month to support herself, her five-year-old son, and her nine-month-old daughter.
``It's very hard to be a single mother,'' Ms. Suarez says. ``Money is much problem. Even though the government helps with food for the children, sometimes I don't eat.''
Part of the difficulty, she explains, speaking alternately in English and Spanish, is the $300 she must pay for a single room -- no kitchen, no bath -- in an old hotel occupied by welfare recipients. ``The landlord charge too much -- $100 a person.''
``I'm very worried about my children growing up in that environment,'' Ms. Suarez continues, tears filling her dark eyes and spilling down her cheeks. ``I need space for my boy. He wants to play. He's growing up. I feel sometimes I can't go through one more day. I want something better for my children.''
As a former secretary with training in electronics, Suarez hopes eventually to find employment and become self-sufficient. But her current economic plight is all too typical. More than 1 child in 5 now lives in a family below the poverty line, which is defined as an income of $10,990 for a family of four. Forty percent of Hispanic children live in poverty, as do 43 percent of black children. Children make up the fastest-growing group of impoverished people in the country.
``Children are in the absolute worst status they have been in during my 30 years of monitoring child and family life in this country,'' says Edward Zigler, director of the Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy at Yale University. ``Every day more and more children are slipping into poverty, which immediately puts them at very high risk for optimal social development.''
That poverty has many causes. Some of it stems from a rising tide of immigrants, who now account for about 40 percent of population growth nationwide. A far greater proportion of childhood poverty can be traced to increases in the numbers of female-headed households. More than half of the 12 million children who live in families headed by women are living in poverty. Although a Stanford researcher reports that the feminization of poverty decreased between 1979 and 1984,a family headed by a woman is 4 times as likely to be poor as a family that includes a married couple or one headed by a man.
From California to New York, the sad consequence is the same. ``Children are poor mostly because their mothers are poor,'' says Theresa Funiciello, co-director of Social Agenda, an antipoverty group in New York. And the mothers become poor by having children.
Two profound sociological changes have contributed to this Catch-22 situation. One is the American divorce rate, now around 50 percent. Ten million children live with separated or divorced parents. By next year, that figure will have increased by 1 million. Formerly middle-class women moving toward the edge of poverty constitute a substantial part of a growing minority dubbed the ``new poor.'' Less than 15 percent of divorced and separated women receive alimony, and default rates are high on child-support payments.
As a result, one-third of divorced women with children move into poverty. In addition, pregnancies among unmarried women have reached record levels. Twenty-one percent of all babies in the US are now born out of wedlock.
As the proportion of children living in poverty has increased -- it is up by more than 50 percent in the last 15 years -- many children's rights supporters worry that children's priority on the national agenda is declining. They point out that federal funds for day-care assistance have been cut by 25 percent since 1980. And the proportion of poor children receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) benefits dropped between 1978 and 1984.
``The most important issue to be addressed in this country relating to children is poverty,'' says Jim Lardie, executive director of the Association of Child Advocates, in Cleveland. ``But it's not popular. It's very difficult talking about issues like that to policymakers when the majority of people in this country are quite comfortable.''
Harold Howe II, a senior lecturer at the Graduate School of Education at Harvard and former education commissioner under President Johnson, agrees, citing ``a change in our view of government. In the '60s and partly into the '70s, many people regarded these social problems of poverty and unemployment as problems to which the national government ought to give real attention and do something about. That belief has declined. There is also a feeling on the part of some people that the civil rights movement in the United States has largely been successful, and now we don't need to worry so much about blacks, Hispanics, and other folks who were on the bottom of the pile and kept there by legal means.
``There is, unfortunately, a misapprehension that the least fortunate people are mostly black and Hispanic. They are not. The least fortunate people are mostly white. But that misapprehension feeds right into a still-alive racial prejudice that exists in this society. That tends to encourage a do-nothingness about social programs. We're in kind of a bind, and we need some new leadership.''
Across the Golden Gate Bridge, a half-hour drive from Cecilia Suarez, Linda Pratt lives with her two children, aged 6 and 3, in the tiny black community of Marin City in a housing project that stands as an exception to the wealth of Marin County, where the average household income is $57,810. The attractive two-story town houses and five-story apartments hugging the foothills bear no resemblance to stark inner-city housing projects. But the challenges residents face are the same: teen-age pregnancy, drugs, poverty, despair.
Mrs. Pratt, whose husband is serving a prison sentence, is a parent-involvement coordinator with Head Start in Marin County, as well as a six-year resident of the project. She explains how she and the women she works with feel:
``Being on AFDC is really stressful. You don't get that much money. The women are lacking in self-esteem. It's real hard to be so needy and see so much wealth around them.
``Housing is another problem. There are a lot of people living together. That just adds to the stress. When you live in an area like this, it's easy to stay in a cycle. It's hard for people to move up. If there was housing somewhere else, that might help by just getting you physically out of the situation. Also, a lot of women who are single are always looking for the right guy. They have their kids and they're looking for a boyfriend, but it just doesn't work together.''
Many of these young mothers, she observes, find ``very little pleasure'' in child rearing. ``Maybe there's pleasure in the beginning, but after about six months I just don't get the sense people are having a good time being a parent. They're young, single, and they don't have enough information to be good parents. You have to have training to become a janitor, but you don't have to have training to become a parent. I think it should be mandatory in schools.''
As for the children, she says, ``A lot of kids need to know their parents care about them and how they do in school. Children just need more support from home, more of home and school working together. Most of all they need to feel good about themselves.''
Sitting in the living room of her sunny apartment, surrounded by plants, toys, and books on Asian art, Pratt says quietly, ``I feel good about my own children. I hope they don't get stuck here. I hope they'll be happy and don't get into other things like drugs to make them happy.''
This is how things look to Cecilia Suarez and Linda Pratt, two women on the inside hoping, with their children, to break out of poverty in the richest country in the world. If anything, the view from the outside appears even more sobering, as seen by the professionals.
Theresa Funiciello puts it bluntly: ``Poverty is the No. 1 killer of children in the United States. It's murder by malfeasance. Nobody is seeing any blood.'' This kind of ``murder,'' she points out, can take many forms, including lead-paint poisoning, elevator-shaft deaths, apartment fires, and ``failure to thrive, for which the only medicine is food.''
Ms. Funiciello says she ``became just amazed by the number of poor women who said they lost a child. I realized this was not normal.'' Her curiosity piqued, she began examining fatal-fire data in New York City. She counted 23 fatal fires in a poor neighborhood of New York City during the winter of 1981, and none in a wealthy neighborhood.
Nor is the problem confined to ghettos or minority groups. In Maine, a state that is 98 percent white and largely rural, a 1980 study found that 12 times as many poor children died in house fires as non-poor children, and eight times as many of disease.
Apart from the obvious solution -- more money -- what can be done to prevent the perpetuation of poverty and the establishment of a permanent underclass of poor children? First of all, specialists say, the crisis must be recognized. Mr. Lardie, in Cleveland, notes that this summer's Hands Across America project was ``a very noble kind of immediate, symbolic act that caused a lot of people to think momentarily about poverty.'' But, he adds, ``the country has to think of it much more frequently than that. If we're going to deal with poverty, we have to deal with it as an issue of justice and fairness, not as an issue of charity. It is a national problem that requires a national solution.''
Next, child advocates note, the cycle of poor children bearing more poor children of their own must be interrupted at the source by education, by moral suasion -- by every means available. ``We have a grave societal problem, the out-of-control fertility of the impoverished and disadvantaged,'' says Wesley Jenkins, director of the Family Service Centers in Clearwater, Fla. ``Sex is one of the things in our society that is still free. You're never going to defeat poverty until you curb that excess fertility of the impoverished. We must control it or it will engulf us.''
Third, they say, a way must be found to keep poor families -- especially the children -- from feeling like an island apart, broken off from the mainland.
``For poor families that grow up with no attachment to the labor force, no attachment to anything but the welfare system, you have to do something early with kids to show them that you can work, you can make money and that's a good thing,'' says Harold Richman, director of the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago.
``We ought to have huge opportunities for kids to participate in constructive service projects in the community. They should be well organized, well rewarded, a lot of fun. Whether it's a combination of a recreational program and a work program, whether you're painting a school or supervising the park or helping old people go to the store, there is a sense of dignity in doing that. If you start kids early enough, the cynical attitude they develop later can be at least a little diluted. There has to be a sense in which kids can be contributors and be recognized for that.
``If a kid has a stake in nothing, he's not going to do anything. That's why gangs are so attractive. They're a different kind of voluntary association. There's a need for that kind of association, and if you can't get it one way you'll get it another.''
Finally, observers say, if the poor must find their way into the outside world, the outside world must find its way into theirs. One program in Fairfax, Calif., called Campaign for a Healthier Community for Children, seeks to get local businesses and agencies to be more responsive to the needs of children.
``The whole community must realize children are our responsibility,'' says Ethel Seiderman, director of the Fairfax-San Anselmo Children's Centers in Fairfax. ``Right now the climate in our nation is not an enhancing climate. So the community is going to have to move in on behalf of children. We are our brother's keeper, not by taking over his life, but by helping and enhancing it.''