Coming to the rescue of children growing up in poverty

Judith Jones, the director of the newly formed National Resource Center for Children in Poverty, says it is almost too easy to talk about the 13 million children living in poverty in the United States, over 20 percent of all Americans under 18. She is troubled by the way country looks at the problem.

``We have not yet acknowledged the fact that poverty among our children, our most valuable resource, should be unacceptable,'' says Ms. Jones, an associate professor of public health at Columbia University and an expert on community preventive-health programs.

``It's an urgent problem because it's growing. The disparity between the rich and the poor in this country is growing. I don't know anyone who'll say it's terrific.

``[But] we haven't been able to capture [that it is] totally unacceptable in a wealthy country like this to have children going to bed hungry at night, to have children have a poor education, poor health, who start life poorly because their mothers don't get prenatal care in a timely fashion. We have not said `Listen, America, this is unacceptable!'''

The National Resource Center at Columbia University, she says, is one way to prod action. Funded by a $1.2 million grant from the Ford Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation, it will be a quasi think tank and research center. It will pull together information, find out what kinds of programs are - and aren't - working, sponsor pilot programs, and offer solid material to advocates, scholars, policymakers, and program operators to improve the country's response to poverty.

``Too often we don't take a more distilled view of what might be some of the solutions, to look at new creative approaches,'' says Jones, who also earned an MBA at Columbia. ``[Ford and Carnegie] both felt that there was no one institution that had pulled together in one place what we know, what the gaps are, where we think that there should be additional emphasis.''

The center will initially look at three areas that Jones says are critical in improving the well-being of families living in poverty: health care, community-based social support systems, and early childhood education and child care.

``One of the center's main tasks will be to identify promising programs or elements of programs across the country and get that information to groups working in other places,'' Jones says.

She adds that the center will not focus on federal legislation or advocacy, but will instead provide advocacy groups with information that may help their message.

``We will emphasize work at three levels - at the individual family level, to improve family functioning and self-reliance. At the institutional level, to foster coordination among providers and to get information to them on how they can be more responsive. ... And we will focus on the policymaking level, to demonstrate workable strategies in an era of cost constraints.''

Within five years, Jones says, she will consider the center a success if she can look across the country and see one or two program efforts that have had a dramatic effect on large numbers of children.

Jones also says it is important to form a consensus among the public that more must be done about poverty. She adds that it is not just poor, black inner-city children.

``A lot of it is rural poverty and a lot of it is white poverty,'' she says. ``Maybe we need some pictures like the ones that come out of Ethiopia to say `No, this is not Ethiopia, this is Fairfield County, [in] Connecticut.' There are a lot of people out there who feel very comfortable that this is `those people,' and not any of ours.''

The problem of intergenerational poverty weighs heavy on Jones.

``How do you break that cycle? One of our first papers is going to be a discussion of poverty in this country. ... As a strategy, this center, as well as other groups, are well into looking at where we should put our emphasis.''

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