Plight of Our Children

June 30, 1991

The National Commission on Children has come to the unanimous conclusion that this nation is collectively guilty of child abuse.

Not child abuse in the usual sense of physical or sexual assault, although that is bad enough, but child abuse through parental neglect, poverty, poor health care, homelessness, divorce, child birth out of wedlock, inadequate pre-schooling, violence-oriented entertainment and, implicitly, the diversion of resources from the youngest generation that needs help most to an elderly generation that needs it least.

This indictment is not likely to result in early passage of anything close to the $50 billion per year program the commission recommends to confront this national shame. But if it pricks the conscience of Americans, if it leads to a more general awareness that the nation's future is at stake in the fate of its children, the commission report could help mold a new political consensus.

One of the beauties of the commission approach is that it combines good old Republican emphasis on solid, two-parent family values with good old Democratic social concern for the disadvantaged. Make no mistake about it, as the family structure deteriorates the most disadvantaged in the U.S. population are those too young to vote.

Another asset in the commission approach is the emphasis ochanges in the tax code rather than federal entitlement or spending programs. More than $40 billion would be funneled to families with children through a $1,000 federal income tax credit for every dependent child. Families too poor to pay taxes would get a cash payment. Those higher on the income scale would benefit from a tax break more lucrative than the present $2,050 personal exemption for dependent children.

How this would be paid was left unanswered by the bipartisan commission. But it obviously would require more taxes on the rich, who got richer as the poor got poorer in the Reagan-Bush era, and deep cuts in other federal programs. It can be argued, too, that it costs much less to provide prenatal care than intensive post-natal hospitalization, much less for Head Start pre-schooling than special education classes later on.

Although the Bush administration representative voted for the commission program with the exception of its controversial $7 billion proposal for mandatory universal health care for children and pregnant women, the White House has remained tepid. Nevertheless, signs of restiveness are appearing on Capitol Hill. Two Republicans have introduced a bill that would roughly double the child exemption to provide family-based tax relief. Two Democrats have called for an $800 child credit.

The plight of our children is clearly an issue for our times. It must be confronted.

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