THE WORLD Summit for Children ended last week with a whimper. Limos lined up outside the United Nations to take home kings and presidents who left armed with little more than platitudes and cheap sentiment. For a moment, though, the attention of the American public was diverted from the gulf, the gas pump and the rising price of beer to the plight of 40,000 children under 5 who are dying every day from diarrhea, measles and malnutrition. For a moment we shook our heads and collectively sighed about what a pity it was that so many kids have to suffer this way.
But the real pity is that it is not just Third World children who are abused, denied medical care, going hungry or living in squalid conditions. It is that in our own country kids are in dire distress, too -- and no one wants to see it. Perhaps it is because of the notion, deeply ingrained in the American psyche, that while children elsewhere may be victims of politics and ideology, people in America get what they deserve.
It is an idea the Reagan revolution cultivated when it decried the decline of the American family, and claimed that all that was needed to restore the nation to its post-war, world-class status -- was a return to "traditional values."
These were code words for the administration's washing its hands of families and children. And it did.
So while the economy demanded that both parents bring home a paycheck to afford a middle-class lifestyle, and the number of single parents soared, the administration -- in the name of traditional values -- recoiled from legislation that would have provided quality child care. And it kicked all kinds of moral dust in the face of a parental leave bill, which would have allowed parents time off from work to care for a sick family member.
In the name of traditional values it decided not to teach seeducation, and not to allow health clinics in the schools where teen-agers might have access to medical care or contraceptives. And a consensus arose that money for fighting the drug war was better spent on law enforcement than on liberal, social programs that catered to addicts (and so, their children) who deserved to be locked up anyway.
The result of all this mindless bloviation was that between 1978 and 1987, while the federal deficit ballooned, spending on children actually fell by 4 percent. Traditional values did not save them.
Today, one in four American children lives in poverty, and there is a resurgence of measles and other preventable diseases among kids whose parents can't afford to immunize them or don't have the time to take them to the doctor. Every eight seconds of every school day a child drops out, and of those who do graduate, one in 10 can't read.
The children of addicts are dying of AIDS in hospitals in every city in this nation. And every 67 seconds another teen-ager becomes pregnant; most get no prenatal care. Overall, a baby born in this country has a slimmer chance of living until its first birthday than a baby born in almost any other industrialized nation. In the inner cities more children die before they reach 1 than in Costa Rica or Jamaica.
Our streets and malls are littered with rich and poor children who are afraid to go home from school because nobody's there, who leave in the morning without breakfast and who anguish at dinner time because there's no one around to share a meal with. So painful is the struggle for kids that 10 percent of the nation's boys and 18 percent of its girls will try to kill themselves at least once. And too many will succeed.
Into this morass comes George Bush, with a proclamation declaring Oct. 14 "National Children's Day" -- the nation's officially designated time to recognize that "children and youth are the future, hope and inspiration of our country." This, of course, is powerful rhetoric -- the kind of thing that nicely balances the emotional bruises from a budget proposal that would have cut services and raised taxes. Still, it seems more like posturing than a genuine recognition that our kids are in big trouble -- and that this society cannot sacrifice its children and still maintain its strength or its integrity.
Bush, a loyal student of the Reagan revolution, has adopted th toxic notion that raised tough-luck to the level of national policy in the 1980s. He already has vetoed the family leave bill, and he has threatened to veto a comprehensive child-care package that is pending in Congress if it ever reaches his desk.
A National Children's Day is tainted by such actions, and its mission -- "to recognize that many of our children are 'at risk' and provide for their needs" -- is thoroughly undermined. A National Children's Day, in fact, means nothing without the realization that there are kids in this country who are suffering just as desperately as those overseas, that their lives -- and our collective future -- are on the line, but that no one has yet responded.