Growing up in an uncaring society

February 26, 1991|By Susan P. Leviton

JENNY IS an attractive 8-year-old who loves taking care of her baby sister and dreams of becoming a dancer when she grows up. She has a winning smile and would appear to be a typical Maryland kid -- except that, like one out of every five children in Maryland today, Jenny is growing up in poverty.

Jenny lives with her grandmother and mother, who holds down two part-time jobs, both at minimum wage. Together with her grandmother's Susan P.Levitonsmall Social Security check, the family is struggling to make ends meet. But making ends meet doesn't include health insurance or regular health care for anyone in the family.

Jenny was born prematurely, a low birth weight baby. Without medical attention, her frequent earaches have developed into a chronic ear infection and permanent hearing loss in one ear. Jenny struggles to stay awake at school but often dozes off because she hasn't had breakfast. Sometimes there was no dinner the night before, either. Jenny suffers from a slight learning disability, but her school hasn't picked it up yet because her class has had a series of substitute teachers, none staying DTC longer than a few weeks at a time.

Today children are the poorest segment of our society. Yet no one acknowledges the link between poverty and the problems of teen pregnancy, substance abuse, crime and educational failure that plague our society. Poor teen-agers are three times more likely to drop out of school and four times more likely to have below average academic skills. The disadvantages they are born with limit them to the lowest-paying jobs, if they can find jobs at all, which only perpetuates the cycle of poverty .

The worsening condition of poor children can be traced directly to the federal policies of the 1980s. Throughout that decade the country dramatically increased the amount of capital available to the wealthiest segment of the population while slashing spending on human service programs for the poor. Real family income decreased at the same time basic shelter costs soared. In Maryland, rents increased by 50 percent. As a result, more than 45,000 Maryland families are on waiting lists for some form of public housing assistance.

Maryland is the seventh wealthiest state in the country, yet is 41st in infant mortality, 42nd in the percent of low birth weight babies and 48th in the percentage of babies born to unwed mothers. Baltimore city has the highest white infant mortality rate in the nation as well as the highest teen pregnancy rate of any city its size. A child born in Baltimore is one and a half times more likely to die in his or her first year of life, twice as likely to suffer from low birth weight and two and a half times more likely to be born to a teen-age mother.

Yet we have a wonderful opportunity in Maryland to change this devastating cycle of poverty. The recommendations of the Maryland Commission on State Taxes and Tax Structure, or the Linowes Commission, offers the chance to transform the lives of many Maryland citizens caught in poverty's vicious downward cycle. By dedicating funding toward quality education, it could help thousands of poor children.

At-risk children and their parents need our help. The much-needed funding promised by the Linowes tax restructuring proposal constitutes a wise investment in our own future and in the future of our state. To repeat the mistakes of the 1980s by neglecting the most needy would be a tragic failure. Jenny and all the other children living in poverty will judge us by the future we leave them.

Susan P. Leviton is president of Advocates for Children & Youth, Inc.

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