* Speaking about the exhibition ``Outside the Dream: Child Poverty in America,'' photographer Stephen Shames admits he didn't intend to ``get into that victim thing.''

``The main point is that the more I started learning about it, the more I learned that the systems set up [to help] don't empower people, but keep them poor.... Everybody gives lip service to welfare reform. No one has done what needs to be done,'' Mr. Shames says.

For example, he met several families with children who had medical problems. The parents quit their jobs to go on welfare so their children could receive Medicaid. ``If they start to pull themselves out of poverty, we punish them.''

This is not to say it's all society's fault, Shames says in a phone interview. ``There are all kinds of reasons why people are poor; some have to do with problems in families.'' Some parents are on drugs. Battered women and children are often poor because they are fleeing abuse, Shames says.

Shames has been a photojournalist since 1967, working freelance for much of his career, save a stint at the Philadelphia Enquirer from 1986 to 1991 as a photo editor and photographer. He began to focus on children in 1979, when he photographed child prostitutes in Times Square for the German magazine Stern. Later, he photographed children in jail, and by 1984, he had taken on the child poverty project.

The Children's Defense Fund (CDF) has designed an exhibition of Shames's photos from this show that is geared to young people. It is traveling to youth museums in the United States.

``It's very moving,'' says Donna Jablonski, CDF director of publications. ``Kids feel a responsibility for other kids, families. They have a real sense of social justice.''

How does he hope people will view his work on children and poverty? ``I want them to say, `These are all our children,' '' Shames says, noting that he doesn't mean that as a ``mushy cliche.''

``To a certain extent it's in our self-interest to think of all children in the US as our children,'' says Shames, who has a son.

In his next major project, Shames says he'll look for groups trying to solve the problems he has documented. ``The media inundate us with what's negative. I want to try and focus on solutions.''

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