NO matter what the social and economic circumstances of a family, children are carried along for the ride. Increasingly, the ride for more and more children in the United States - the world's wealthiest nation - is straight into poverty.
A recent study by Tufts University in Medford, Mass., indicates that poverty among white, black, and Hispanic children under 18 in the US increased by a staggering 47 percent between 1973 and 1992. The result, says the Urban Institute in Washington, is that 1 out of 5 American children - more than 14 million - are in poverty today. That is twice the poverty rate of any other industrialized nation.
``Today, children are the poorest Americans,'' reports the National Commission on Children. The majority of children in poverty are white, but about 44 percent of all black children are poor, and 36 percent of Hispanic children are poor. Poverty rates among Hispanic children are growing the fastest.
If poverty rates among all children remain constant for the next 20 years or so, says the Tufts University study, ``two nations will emerge, one poor and one wealthy.'' The government defines poverty as an annual income of $11,186 for a family of three.
Many sociologists and economists say that the severity of poverty today has contributed to children's loss of hope in the future. ``Unfortunately, when a child is born into a hopeless situation,'' says John Cook, research director at the Center on Hunger, Poverty and Nutrition Policy at Tufts University, ``they learn hopelessness very quickly, and it appears that they cannot affect their environment. In a hopeless situation, people do things they would not otherwise consider.''
Child poverty, both the causes and solutions, are tangled in a thicket of changing social forces, politics, and new economic pressures. Derrick Bell, author of the book ``Faces At The Bottom of The Well'' and a New York University law professor, says almost all of society's rules are changing. ``The pattern across the country,'' he says, ``is that as opportunities are being closed off at the bottom of the [economic] ladder, jobs that traditionally went to blacks and minorities are disappearing into technology or taken over by legal and illegal immigrants.''
``We have had such tremendous neglect in many of our devastated communities,'' says Judith Jones, director of the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University in New York City, ``that a minimum-wage job is not going to change the quality of life for poor families and young children. There have to be jobs with sufficient wages.''
Today more children face the reality of poverty when the mother, no matter what her race, has never been married or is recently divorced. Children in female-led families are five times as likely to be poor as those in married-couple families. Middle-class women often end up in poverty after a divorce because they have few marketable skills.
The number of births to unmarried mothers in the US rose to 1.2 million in 1992, an 82 percent increase since 1980. The majority of these mothers are on welfare, costing some $50 billion annually in welfare payments, Medicaid, and food stamps.
``This is an issue [by which] the Clinton administration may end up being hoisted on its own petard,'' Ms. Jones says. Clinton has suggested that welfare mothers be made to join the work force in full-time jobs. ``To force young mothers into the work force without quality child care will be an impossibility,'' Jones says. ``There is a serious undersupply of child care now.''
Many women - single parents or not - earn less than men. And it is more and more common to be poor even if working full time. Wages across the US have not kept pace with the cost of living. Many sociologists advocate an increase in the $4.25-an-hour minimum wage. Child support from an absent father is often a small amount, if paid at all.
As the number of young people in poverty increases, as well as the number of older Americans, economists are concerned that marginally educated workers will not make enough money to support the Social Security system.
But some observers still have hope. ``If we can continue to implement the good policies that are in place,'' Jones says, ``and see that every child has access to such things as adequate prenatal care, and high quality early education, then we increase the success of all children. No matter what administration it is, they tell us there are insufficient resources. Yet anytime there is a disaster, we always find millions of dollars to fix it. It's a question of priorities.''