Children, Families, Candidates

FOUR years ago, presidential contenders of both parties were racing each other to the nearest child-care center, eager to portray themselves as pro-family candidates.

This year there has been no similar stampede. Other issues - abortion, health care, jobs, education, character - have eclipsed child care. Perhaps the closest anyone has come to baby-kissing is Bill Clinton, who recently visited a neonatal ward in a Philadelphia hospital. There, holding a premature newborn as the baby's father looked on, Governor Clinton promised to promote a plan to give all pregnant women access to prenatal care.

That may be a worthy proposal. At the same time, the general silence on child care and other family issues is troubling, leaving the impression that the needs of families have been met. Far from it. Since the last election, the quality of child care has actually declined in some places. Surveys in California, Oregon, Ohio, and Maryland find that low teacher pay and high staff turnover affect the quality of care. And a recent report by the Boston Foundation shows that thousands of local child-care slots f or low-income children have been eliminated, leaving fewer than 4,000 slots for 10,000 poor children.

Nor are other issues involving children and families getting much attention. The parental-leave bill, twice vetoed by President Bush, remains in legislative limbo. And have politicians forgotten that 1 American child in 8 is hungry? Or that 1 child in 5 is poor? As for homelessness, another family-related topic on the 1988 campaign agenda, the current Harper's Index includes this item: "Number of times any candidate has mentioned homelessness during the debates: 2."

At a time when little federal money is available for social programs, the silence is probably not surprising. But children and families must not get lost in the bitter debates over abortion and, after the Los Angeles riots, racism.

It is inconceivable that the care and welfare of the next generation should be classed as a secondary issue. Not only parents but all voters are entitled to ask the candidates: What possible priority is so urgent that it relegates children to the back burner?

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