New Look at Plight of US Children Puts Pressure on Clinton Reforms

A STRING of recent high-profile reports on America's children are once again sounding the alarm about the nation's future.

* A three-year study by the Carnegie Corporation of New York concluded that ``across the United States, we are beginning to hear the rumblings of a quiet crisis'' for children under age 3.

* The Child Welfare League of America reports that nearly 1 million children in the US are living with relatives other than their parents. ``So many kids are losing their parents to drugs, violence, physical and mental illness, incarceration, and the tragedy of HIV-AIDS that grandparents and other relatives are being called upon to care for children in much larger numbers,'' says David Liederman, executive director of the league.

* A recent study by the Families and Work Institute found that only 9 percent of family child-care arrangements provide good quality care.

The timing of these reports increases pressure on the Clinton administration as it works toward reforming the nation's health-care and welfare systems.

The report, which resulted from a 30-member task force of experts from a range of fields, aims to ``raise the level of consciousness of the nation concerning the plight of families rearing young children.''

Secretary of Education Richard Riley was the chairman of the task force until joining the Clinton administration.

The report says that a ``staggering'' number of America's 12 million infants and toddlers confront serious risks to healthy development. One in 4 children lives in poverty, and the same proportion live in single-parent families.

``This is a high-stakes game we are playing with our children and, hence, with the future of our nation,'' says David Hamburg, president of the Carnegie Corporation.

It has long been recognized that the early childhood years are a crucial foundation for future development. Yet the Carnegie task force hopes this report, ``Starting Points: Meeting the Needs of Our Youngest Children,'' will serve as a catalyst for change. After all, a well-received report, ``A Nation at Risk,'' is widely credited with launching the education reform movement in 1983.

Speaking at a Carnegie conference last week, Hillary Rodham Clinton said she hoped this report will ``serve as a blueprint for our institutions in adult society about what our obligations are ... when it comes to securing the futures of our very youngest children.''

Changes in the nation's economy and dramatic shifts in family life are widely recognized as the cause of an increasing burden on America's youngest citizens. In 1960, for example, 5 percent of all births were to unmarried women. By 1990, 28 percent of babies were born to mothers without husbands. Only 7 percent of children under 3 lived with one parent in 1960; 27 percent do today. More than half of mothers with children under age 3 now work outside the home, leaving more than 5 million infants and toddlers in the care of adults other than their parents.

The Carnegie report estimates that the United States ranks at the very bottom internationally among industrialized nations with respect to providing health care for children, subsidizing child care, and providing family leaves for parents with young children.

President Clinton takes credit for having signed the Family Leave and Medical Act into law last year, but the Carnegie task force dismisses the law as too weak.

It calls for expanding coverage to include employers with less than 50 employees and extending the 12-week leave to four-to-six months with at least partial salary.

Although the Carnegie report calls on individuals and corporations to help rejuvenate support for families, it specifically outlines several areas in which the federal government should increase funding.

``[It] should channel substantial new money into quality, affordable child care for families with children under 3,'' the report says. It also prescribes financial incentives for states to adopt standards for quality child care and federal and state funding for training of child-care providers.

The task force also recommends expanding Head Start for low-income families with children under 3.

A bill to do this is being considered in Washington. The early years are the most crucial time for parents to receive educational support for their children, says Edward Zigler, a member of the task force and architect of the Head Start program. ``The minute a child turns 5, we are quite willing to pay $5,000 a year in the form of schooling,'' he says. But ``parents are in it all alone'' when their children are most vulnerable.

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