How to save our children

JOanna Wragg

September 06, 1991|By Joanna Wragg | Joanna Wragg,Joanna Wragg is associate editor of the Miami Herald.

YOU WANT to "save America's children," do you? But you don't know what the country can do to get out of the quagmire of dropouts, delinquency, disease and dysfunction?

OK. Here's the first step. It isn't complicated. It's expensive -- $54 billion per year -- but it's no mystery. First, we must:

* Fund Head Start -- completely. Cost: $4 billion in federal funds.

* Fund health care for all children. Cost: about $50 billion per year.

Then we have to let working families be families. We have to provide time for parents to be with their children.

The Head Start price is a big number. Four billion is 73 percent of Toys-R-Us' annual sales. But it would be a bargain.

It is much cheaper and more effective to start children in school properly than to play catch-up later. Everyone knows that. Nor is it any secret that millions of the country's 5-year-olds are hopelessly behind when they show up for kindergarten.

Head Start brings them to school ready. Study after study has proved that this straightforward early-childhood education program reduces dropout rates, improves self-esteem and prevents many of the teen-age pathologies that splash across our front pages daily.

But Head Start now is a privilege, not a right. Two-thirds of the children who qualify on the basis of low income can't get in. That's because the government never has fully funded this prize legacy from the Great Society.

Health care, focused on prevention and health education, has a bigger price tag. Fifty billion is the amount the Treasury LTC Department borrows every month to finance the federal deficit.

Fifty billion is my own estimate. It's a projection from the $72 billion now spent on Medicaid, the government health-insurance program for 27 million people on welfare or at welfare levels.

Another 37 million people in the United States, about half of them children, now are uninsured. To cover those children, and to raise the fees to match those of Medicare, would cost about $50 billion. Actually, it might cost less because most of those children are not seriously ill. They need monitoring and health education more than they need surgery or dialysis.

These two short-term items, health care and Head Start, totaling $54 billion annually, can be enacted any time the president and Congress decide to get serious about children.

Long-range, children need something else. They need parenting more time and attention from Mom and Dad. The bill to require employers to provide family-leave time, which President Bush vetoed, would be a step in that direction.

But children need attention when they're well, too. School-age children don't need an idle adult at home all day waiting for them, but they do need a parent during some of their waking, active hours. The best government remedy for parent-deprivation is:

* Trim the standard work week from 40 hours to 35, with a goal of 30 hours.

American families today have no family time. It now takes 80 hours of adult work time to support a family that just 20 years ago was supported by 40 work hours. Little wonder that marriages are falling apart -- and so are children.

Sixty work hours per family should be plenty, with each family deciding how to apportion that time between the two parents. Thirty hours should qualify a worker as "full-time" for purposes of benefits, pensions and promotions.

There is no specific price tag on this change. Much of it should come in the private sector, but federal, state, and local government should lead the way as employers. They should begin to offer options -- for a shorter work day, a four-day week, or unpaid leave time during summers, for example.

There is no one schedule that fits every family and business. But every business can accept family needs -- children's needs -- as a legitimate factor in negotiating hours and schedules.

None of this is complicated. Head Start, health care and more time with working parents -- these are easily understood basics. The problem is the price. Or, rather, it is that we refuse to count the price that we're paying now for neglecting our children.

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