Putting Children First

`PUTTING children first'' is a phrase repeated so often by child advocates and politicians that it risks becoming a cliche. At best it is a goal more easily dreamed of than accomplished.

Yet a national initiative launched yesterday could help to turn idealistic rhetoric into practical support for the nation's 64 million children. Children Now, a national nonpartisan policy group based in Oakland, Calif., has unveiled a document called ``The Contract With America's Children,'' featuring 10 principles it hopes legislators will honor as they consider policy reforms that could affect children.

The contract's first point is a pledge to consider children's needs and well-being first in evaluating national policies, including health and welfare reforms. Other principles include supporting children's healthy development, reducing their exposure to violence on television and in the street, supporting marriage, and helping working families stay out of poverty. The contract also calls for providing continuing education and job training to people of all means and holding elected leaders accountable for their responsibilities to children.

More than 100 groups representing a wide range of political philosophies have signed the contract, attesting to its broad-based appeal. The coalition will send copies of the document to all congressional members in the coming months.

The Contract With America's Children comes on the eve of potentially sweeping welfare reform expected when the new Congress takes office next month. Any policy changes will directly affect the 9.5 million American children whose families are on welfare. The contract could serve as a counterbalance to some of the get-tough proposals now gaining momentum in Washington. These range from removing poor mothers from welfare rolls after a specified time limit to placing their children in orphanages.

The coalition's task will not be easy. Whether this contract, which has no political power of its own, can make a difference remains to be seen. But its very existence, and its support by such a large and wide-ranging group of organizations, attest to a growing realization that depriving children of resources essential to their well-being represents a failure of compassion and an inability to think beyond the moment. The Contract with America's Children, if taken seriously, could serve as a promising New Year's resolution for the next generation.

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