We CAN help the children

WILEY A. HALL 3rd

June 06, 1991|By Wiley A. Hall 3rd

The pathetic thing is this: If we treated our children even as well as we now treat our elderly, this might be a kinder, gentler society.

There might be less violent crime, less drug and alcohol abuse. We might have to spend a smaller proportion of our resources treating the physically sick and the mentally ill. We might have a larger, better educated work force.

If we treated our children even as well as we now treat our elderly, would we then live in a paradise?

Nah. I'm not even 40 years old yet, and already I've been rubbed raw of idealism. I've lost my faith in paradises.

But our world might be a better place, a kinder, gentler place.

But to get there -- and this is a mountain of a caveat -- we first would have to turn our attitudes inside out and upside down.

We would have to accept, the way we apparently accept with the elderly, that our children deserve our help. It is pathetic, isn't it, that we apparently can't, or won't, or haven't, changed our thinking even that much?

Yes, we are a mean and miserable people when it comes to

children.

The pathos of the situation was illustrated by "Child Poverty in America", a report released Monday by the Children's Defense Fund, which found first, that more and more of America's children are slipping into poverty, and second, that we could reverse the trend if we wanted to.

The researchers compared the country's success in combating poverty for the young with programs aimed at combating poverty among the elderly.

Over the past three decades, according to the report, federal programs have helped cut the elderly poverty rate from nearly 30 percent to about 11 percent.

In comparison, the percentage of children living in poverty grew steadily during the same period, so that now it stands at over 20 percent.

Not only were more children living in poverty, the researchers also discovered that they tended to be deeper in poverty than in the past.

"We have not chosen to use our growing affluence to combat child poverty," noted the authors. Yet, "we can choose otherwise. America's success in lifting older Americans out of poverty during the past three decades offers compelling evidence that this nation has the knowledge and ability to combat poverty."

The authors were puzzled by our failure to accomplish this.

"It is often difficult to understand why America tolerates such a high incidence of child poverty when it causes so much suffering, weakens the nation, and subverts our future," they said in the report.

The report offers one answer -- call it the Just Desserts Syndrome.

Most of us do not blame the elderly for their plight. We understand that old age is something that can happen to anyone, including ourselves or our loved ones.

The stereotype of the typical couple living on Social Security is of a law-abiding people who have worked hard all of their lives suddenly made vulnerable by age, declining health, and living on a fixed income.

The CDF report doesn't mention this, but it is significant that, although the United States has one of the worst health-care delivery systems in the industrialized world by a number of measures, health care for the elderly is among the finest in the world.

But as a nation, we don't feel nearly as much empathy for the families of poor children.

The stereotypical poor child is perceived as born out of wedlock, to a black, teen-age mother who lives in the ghetto, doesn't work, and depends entirely on welfare to survive.

Poverty, in the public mind, is their Just Desserts.

Thus, even though it may not even be a conscious perception, to the body politic, helping such a family out of poverty is like rewarding them for their sins. So, we pinch pennies, haggle over whom to help and by how much, and in the end, accomplish more harm than good.

But in fact, note the researchers, most poor children were not black, most lived outside of the central cities, and most lived in families where at least one adult worked at a full- or part-time job.

In fact, our poor -- black or white or Hispanic or Asian -- are a lot like the elderly in that they are ordinary people, often hard working, law-abiding people, who find themselves trapped by the tyranny of circumstance.

Poverty is not a form of divine retribution. Helping families out of poverty is not a sin.

It is a pathetic society that hasn't, or can't, learned this.

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