Commitment to Children's Rights

IT is generally, if painfully, accepted at this point that the cost of funding programs for children and families is dwarfed by the ramifications of not funding them. It is also true, however, that blood cannot be gotten from a stone. With a federal budget deficit bordering the twilight zone, and increasing state and local fiscal pressures, our chances of stamping out infant mortality and disease, poverty, child abuse and neglect, hunger, homelessness, and illiteracy, not to mention crime, drug abuse, and inner city hopelessness in this century are difficult to imagine .

Despite the odds, however, we are making some inroads. In the recent budget negotiations, Congress managed to pass a package of child and family-help legislation even within the strict Gramm-Rudman constraints. The package includes the first increase for Head Start in 25 years, bringing funding for this stellar early-childhood education program up from less than $2 billion in 1990 to almost $8 billion in 1994. Congress also appropriated $2.5 billion over the next three years for the country's first child-care bill, and enacted tax credits for poor working families with children.

These measures are just salve on a deep wound. But their importance is much more than skin deep. They signal at long last a public commitment to get to the heart of the problem.

Of course, commitment is no substitute for funding of full-scale, comprehensive programs. But commitment is essential before priorities can be reordered for any serious attempt to help improve conditions for children and families in jeopardy.

Now that we have the commitment of Congress (albeit preliminarily), what we need is a clear, unambiguous indication from President Bush that he is willing to go along.

The president took a tentative step in this direction by participating in the World Summit for Children at the United Nations in September. The largest-ever gathering of heads of state, the children's summit accomplished the impossible: It got the leaders of 71 nations to agree to a World Declaration of Survival, Protection and Development of Children, and a plan of action for implementing it.

Unfortunately, President Bush wavered when it came to joining his fellow summiteers in carrying out the very first specific action called for in the plan. That is, ``the earliest possible ratification'' of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international treaty setting minimum standards for the well-being of children.

The treaty was laid out for all attending heads of state to sign. All of them did, except the US president. That leaves us out of the total of 130 nations that have signed the convention, indicating their intention to seek ratification, and the 50 that have actually ratified it.

The president's failure to take action on this landmark treaty is surely less a rejection of its articles than a hesitation to commit to them. Certainly George Bush, who campaigned on an education platform, and has carefully and deliberately identified himself with family values, could not possibly oppose the categorical right to survival for every child, through the provision of adequate food, shelter, clean water, and primary health care. Or the right to protection from abuse, neglect, and exploitation. Or the right to develop in a safe environment.

The president's retreat can only be a reluctance to obligate himself, at a time when most domestic programs are necessarily taking a back seat to the deficit and the crisis in the Persian Gulf.

The key is to equate the convention on children's rights not with expendable outreach programs, but rather with our indispensable democratic convictions. The United States should be able to commit upfront, and unconditionally, to the premise that children, by virtue of their physical, emotional, and legal immaturity, should be entitled to special care and protection as a matter of democratic principle.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child does not ask for instantaneous remedies to deep-seated ills. It asks that each nation seek to identify the remedies and progressively apply them.

President Bush must permit the United States to accept this challenge by ratifying the children's treaty. The actual cost of our commitment now will be far less than the potential cost to our children, our integrity, and our budget down the road. It's the only right thing to do.

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