`A Time of Peril'

IT is a sad commentary that the word ``children'' now suggests less a bright promise - the hope of the future - than a set of problems and predicaments, as in the ever-more familiar phrase, children at risk.

A new Carnegie Corporation report, three years in the making, is only the latest study to state that America's children often are unwanted and even more often uncared-for - the subject matter for a dark Dickens novel rather than a Norman Rockwell painting.

Heartbreaking descriptive phrases go with the children of the 1990s: Children of poverty. Children of divorce. Children of abuse. Children of children, an infant staring up at a teenage mother.

The disintegration of the American family has become such an old story that the data accumulated in this study of 12 million children offer few surprises. A quarter of the children are born into poverty - 26 percent to unmarried women, compared with 5 percent in 1960. Almost half are likely to see their parents divorced. Homelessness of a special sort occurs at an early age - in the latest four years available for study, the number of children assigned to foster homes jumped by 50 percent.

To the nation's embarrassment and shame, the United States ranks near the bottom among industrial countries in providing health services before and after birth, in granting parental leave, and in support for child care.

``A time of peril and loss'' is how the report characterizes the crucial early years of American children. A similar alarm was sounded three years ago in a report from the National Commission on Children. How many more reports are needed? How many more experts will be moved to warn that the early years are the formative years for a child?

As usual, the new study recommends that parents, businesses, and the government combine to ``do something about it.'' Yet the projects that have proven effective for children, such as Head Start, fall far down the list below the latest Pentagon experimental weapon. Nor is the role of child-care giver, whether parent or professional, allotted the serious respect that might inspire change.

Efforts by private organizations, government agencies, and individuals to deal with the problems that the Carnegie report cites are indispensable. But as the report's results indicate, much more needs to be done. Someday, one of these irrefutable reports will finally fire enough hearts and stir enough consciences to make the larger changes in national priorities that produce the financial and moral commitment needed to reverse the findings. The Carnegie study is a good place to start.

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