The Cost of Neglect of America's Children


Across the face of America, children are failing to flourish. Rich kids, middle-class kids, poor kids -- all deal with risk and neglect on a scale unimagined in previous generations.

Consider the following facts:

* 20 percent of all children are growing up in poverty, a 21 percent increase since 1970.

* 12 million children lack basic health insurance coverage.

* 15 million children have been abandoned by their fathers.

* The rate of suicide among adolescents has tripled over the last twenty years.

* Scholastic Aptitude Test scores among college-bound youngsters have fallen 70 points since 1963.

* 27 percent of teen-agers drop out of school (compared with 6 percent in Japan and 8 percent in Germany).

We find this information very hard to absorb because we think of America as a child-centered nation. We like to boast that our children are cherished, protected, nurtured and offered a field of opportunity unmatched elsewhere in the world.

Close inspection however, reveals a much less comforting reality. Over the the past 25 years, slowly but relentlessly, American society has been tilting in an ominous new direction -- toward the devaluation of children.

In the public sphere, our policies display a weak and eroding commitment to children. We slash school budgets, build "adults only" housing and deny working parents the right to spend a few weeks with their newborn babies. In 1989 less than 5 percent of the federal budget was devoted to programs that benefit children -- one-fifth the amount we spent that year on persons over 65. Until thirty years ago, most Americans would have considered it unthinkable that the resources we invest in the beginnings of life might be dwarfed by the resources we consume at the end of life.

Other rich democracies give children much higher priority. Countries as diverse as Britain, France, Italy and Canada spend two or three times as much as the United States on families with children -- which helps explain why so many more American than European children live below the poverty line.

This resources deficit, this failure to invest public money in our children, is aggravated by a growing time deficit. Over the last 25 years there has been a sharp decline in the amount of parental time and attention -- the amount of contact time between parents and children has dropped a staggering 40 percent. Parental time has been squeezed by the rapid shift of mothers into the labor force; by escalating divorce rates and the abandonment of children by their fathers; and by an increase in the number of hours required on the job. Today the average workers puts in six hours more per week than in 1973.

This reduction in parental time has had an extremely negative impact on children. Unsupervised "latchkey" kids are at increased risk of substance abuse, and children with little or no contact with fathers are unlikely to perform well at school.

One thing is sure: our failure to invest either public resources or private time in the raising of children has left many families fragile and overburdened, unable to do a decent job in raising the next generation. True, some children continue to be raised in supportive communities by thoughtful, attentive parents, but the larger fact is that the whole drift of our society, our government policies and our private adult choices is toward blighting our youngsters and stunting their potential. An anti-child spirit is loose in the land.

The problems of our youth range from elemental issues of health and safety to more complicated issues of motivation and performance. We cannot ensure the safety of our children on the streets or in the home. Each day in the United States an average of ten youngsters are shot dead. Nationwide, the incident of child abuse has quadrupled since 1975. The United States ranks 20th in the world in infant mortality, behind such countries as Spain and Singapore. A baby born in the shadow of the White House is now more likely to die in the first year of life than a baby born in Jamaica or Costa Rica.

On the educational front the news is even more grim, since under-achievement and failure now spread deep into the middle class. American kids are at or near the bottom in most international surveys measuring educational achievement; 7th out of 10 countries in physics; 9th out of 10 in chemistry; and 10th -- dead last -- in average mathematics proficiency.

But its not just math and science skills. American school children seem to know very little about the world they live in. In a recent ABC poll, fewer than half of all high school students knew what apartheid was, and nearly 70 percent hadn't heard of Chernobyl, the worst nuclear accident in history. One student thought it was Cher's last name.

Misery and failure among our youth is much more than a private tragedy. We are only just beginning to realize that this swelling tide of child neglect has potentially disastrous consequences for our nation.

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