How U.S. neglects its children--and the effects

July 07, 1991|By Ann Egerton

WHEN THE BOUGH BREAKS:

THE COST OF NEGLECTING

OUR CHILDREN.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett.

Basic Books.

283 pages. $22.95.

Pick a page, any page, of this book and learn one grim fact after another to support Sylvia Ann Hewlett's thesis: that this country is in economic and social trouble because we are not taking care of our most precious resource -- our children. Ms. Hewlett, an economist and author of "A Lesser Life" -- a book about women's concerns -- demonstrates exhaustively that neglect is producing a generation unprepared to compete in today's global economy, at a time when employees with higher levels of education are being required. Now that the neglect is being translated into bottom-line deficits, the country may do something about it.

Ms. Hewlett's instances of child neglect (and consequences thereof) include:

*In 1987 less than 5 percent of the federal budget was devoted to programs to benefit children -- one-fifth the amount we spent that year on persons over 65 (12 percent of the population).

*Twenty percent of all children are growing up in poverty -- an increase of 21 percent since 1970.

*Forty-two percent of fathers fail to see their children after divorce; two-thirds fail to pay child support.

*Nationwide, the incidence of reported child abuse has quadrupled since 1975.

*About 330,000 children are homeless.

*The rate of suicide among adolescents has tripled since 1960.

Ms. Hewlett writes that other rich democracies -- Britain, France, Sweden and Canada -- spend two to three times as much as the United States on families with children, "which explains why so many more American than European or Canadian children live below the poverty line."

Another contribution to child poverty, neglect and abuse is family breakdown, manifested by the divorce rate (it tripled between 1960 and 1982) as well as the increasing number of out-of-wedlock births to teens. As a result, many children start life in poor health, are malnourished and are fated to fare badly in school.

Middle-class children are being neglected and abused, too, she writes. The rising divorce rate, no-fault divorce laws in many states and more mothers in the work force all contribute to reduced time for children -- 10 fewer hours per week in white households, 12 hours per week in black ones -- between 1960 and 1986. We know the results of these trends -- failing SAT scores, rising emotional problems (including alcohol and drug abuse), and violence among children.

What has gone wrong? Ms. Hewlett builds a compelling case against the Reagan and Bush administra- tions, which have refused to regulate day-care centers; which have deregulated the television industry, thereby allowing sleazy and violent programs to be aired while children are watching; and which have methodically reduced services, such as supplemental food for families below the poverty line, low-income housing, family planning and health care.

But there's more at fault than these administrations. Ms. Hewlett contends that in the past 30 years, American adults have turned from being dutiful, responsible citizens who raise their children with care, to individuals who are interested in their own fulfillment before their families' welfare. Ms. Hewlett reminds us that liberal Democrats -- feminists, especially -- have been so eager to embrace self-actualization that they, too, have turned their backs on family.

Mercifully, Ms. Hewlett offers remedies, some of which are in place. More and more corporations are learning that on-site day care, job sharing, even financial contributions to child care, produce happy employees and healthy profits. She also outlines a six-point plan for governments to adopt, from free prenatal and maternity care to regulation of television programming; also, "governments should construct a set of rewards and penalties to encourage parents to stay together." She suggests educational reform, new housing subsidies and a "pro-family tax reform." As she reminds us, "our children are our capital."

Ms. Egerton is a writer living in Baltimore.

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