The Cause of Children

BEHIND the geopolitical headlines about Eastern Europe, possible reunification of Germany, Gorbachev's woes, and Bush's overtures to China, another kind of story has been poking its small head into the picture in past weeks. It's the story about children - their condition and their prospects in the coming years. Neither category looks very good.

According to a new United Nations report, some 14.5 million children a year never live past age five, because of disastrous health conditions. Most of these are in third-world countries. Were third-world nations to cut military expenditures by merely 2.5 percent - and spend the money on health, food, and living conditions - about 6 million of these deaths could be avoided.

Next September the UN will hold a 40-nation summit on children - attended by Gorbachev and Bush - to discuss the problem. As anybody older than 5 knows, the problem is not new. How to solve it is another thing. Third-world dictators don't like cutting military costs. Airlifting food and medical supplies doesn't get at the roots of the problem - which have to do with changing ingrained cultural habits and beliefs that cause ignorance and poverty.

The existence of health care isn't enough. In Boston the infant mortality rate is increasing; Massachusetts has the third highest infant mortality rate in the US. Yet it is considered No. 1 in medical facilities.

As this sad paradox suggests, developing countries aren't the only ones failing to do right by their children. Three million more American children live in poverty today than in 1980. One out of four US kids is born into welfare ($20 billion a year is spent on unwed welfare mothers). About 13 percent are born to teenagers.

The number of US kids living under government care is up too. It's currently 500,000, and may top 800,000 by 1995. These are the children in foster homes, detention centers, and makeshift housing - who need shelter from the grownup world of alcohol, crack cocaine, abuse, hate, and neglect.

More grownups need to take responsibility.

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