IF Americans were asked to name the social ill they find most intolerable, many would probably answer: poverty among children. If they were then asked what their picture of a poor American child is, they would most likely answer: the child of an unmarried black teenage mother, living on welfare in the inner city.
But that stereotype would be wrong. According to a new report by the Children's Defense Fund, ``Child Poverty in America,'' more poor families are living outside central cities than inside them. Most include at least one gainfully employed worker in the family. And even if the United States numbered no children at all in single-parent families, it would still have one of the worst records of child poverty among industrialized nations.
Some 12.6 million American children live in poverty - about 1 out of 5.
So much for stereotypes about poor children. And so much for the assumption that a nation forever professing its love of the family would not tolerate widespread poverty among children.
Between 1979 and 1989, the number of children in poverty increased by more than 21 percent even while the index of prosperity - the GNP - grew by more than 25 percent. Whatever became of ``trickle-down''?
The Children's Defense Fund estimates that in 1989 every poor family with children could have been raised above the federal poverty level ($9,885 for a family of three) for a cost of $28 billion a year. By comparison, more than that will be appropriated to bail out savings-and-loan associations during 1991 alone.
A second report this month, from a 34-member bipartisan federal advisory panel chaired by Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D) of West Virginia, places a higher price tag on eliminating child poverty. The panel's recommended tax credit of $1,000 for every child in the United States could cost nearly $45 billion a year. A ``universal system of health insurance for pregnant women and for children through age 18'' would cost the federal government another $7 billion, drawing an additional $8.9 billion from empl oyers.
But both reports see the remedy for child poverty as more than a matter of cold cash. The Children's Defense Fund report emphasizes the relation between the figures on children in poverty and those other appalling national statistics on crime, drugs, and the state of the schools. The Rockefeller panel report goes even further in calling for more than merely financial resources, concluding, ``Children do best when they have the personal involvement ... of a father and a mother, and when both parents fulf ill their responsibility to be loving providers.''
This summons to the heart as well as the pocketbook declares a mandate upon all Americans concerned with the next generation. Thanks to these two reports, the needs of poor children have been clarified and the needful themselves have been precisely defined. Now, in the words of Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund, ``It is time to honor our pro-family rhetoric.''