Panel urges quick action to help children in poverty

June 25, 1991|By R. A. Zaldivar and Gregory Spears | R. A. Zaldivar and Gregory Spears,Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- Poverty, parental indifference and governmental ineptitude are keeping too many of America's kids from reaching a fulfilling, productive adulthood, the bipartisan National Commission on Children reported yesterday.

After 2 1/2 years of investigation, the 34-member panel unanimously warned that unless the country acts quickly, it will lose ground in a global economy that demands well-trained, technologically sophisticated workers.

Though the commission found that most American children are "healthy, happy and secure," it concluded that "there is ample evidence that children are worse off in 1990 than they were in 1970."

Yet the commission split 24-9 on a proposal to guarantee health care for all children, and its members were unable to agree on how to pay for the centerpiece of its $56 billion package of recommendations: a $1,000-per-child income tax credit costing

$40 billion. The credit would be payable even if no taxes were owed.

Created by Congress and President Ronald Reagan, the commission gathered leading health, education and social welfare experts, children's advocates, business representatives, Bush administration officials and elected officeholders.

"This is not just another report," said Marian Wright Edelman, head of the Children's Defense Fund and a commission member. "It is very clear that millions of Americans out there understand that something has come loose and that we need to invest in children and families.

"The American people are ready to deal with the enemies within, which are family disintegration, child poverty and the lack of health care," added Ms. Edelman. "These will be the issues of the Nineties."

The commission's 500-page report is full of troubling statistics:

One child in five lives in poverty, making children the poorest group in society. One in four is in a single-parent family. Each year, over a half-million youths drop out of school, and a half-million teen-age girls have babies. Alcohol and drugs threaten the health and development of 375,000 children a year. More than 8 million have no health insurance.

As mothers join the labor force in growing numbers, families have less time to be together. Fifty-nine percent of parents say they would like more time to be with their children.

The commission was headed by a potential Democratic presidential contender, West Virginia Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV.

As the non-voting chairman, he worked to achieve a consensus view of the problems facing children, if not all the solutions. "What moves me is the unanimity of feeling," said Mr. Rockefeller.

Wade Horn, head of the Children, Youth and Families Administration, and the ranking executive branch official on the commission, said the report had "many elements that can be endorsed by the Bush administration."

In particular, Mr. Horn praised the report's endorsement of the two-parent family and a section affirming the importance of values and urging parents to be "more vigilant and aggressive" in controlling the things their children see and hear.

The commission also urged the entertainment industry to tone down its portrayals of violence and sexual themes, and appealed for restraint in the commercialization of children's television.

The White House spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, offered guarded compliments.

"I think our overall judgment is that there are many good things in it; there are many things we agree with," he said. But Mr. Fitzwater added "the money's not there" to carry out the commission's "big-ticket" recommendations, such as the $1,000 tax credit.

However, support for some sort of tax break for families with children is building in Congress. More than 200 House members are co-sponsoring a bill introduced by Representative Frank Wolf, R-Va., that would increase the dependent deduction from $2,150 to $3,500. Mr. Wolf also wants to create a $500 tax credit for families with children under five.

Commission report highlights

Give parents a $1,000 tax credit for every child through age 18, replacing the existing personal exemption for dependent children.

* Require all employers either to provide insurance for pregnant employees and their families, or to contribute to a public health insurance program for children and pregnant women who are not covered by their employer.

* Make Head Start available to every eligible child.

* Give students the option to enroll in public schools outside their districts.

* Require all employers to provide job-protected leave for childbirth, adoption and family and medical emergencies.

* Provide local family support networks and offer prevention and early intervention services for families in crisis.

* Give young people access to support systems in their community to help them avoid high-risk behaviors such as drug abuse.

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