The Children So Many Have Forgotten


September 26, 1991|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- The judge, told why Linda Marrero's parents chained her to the radiator in their Bronx apartment, reduced the charge. Besides, Linda, 15, says her parents were acting in her best interests. She is an ''at risk'' child. And how.

The New York Times details the long trek through the social services labyrinth that convinced Linda's parents her problems ''were not going to be solved through government.'' In the two years since she dropped out of sixth grade she had taken to

disappearing into the New York nights where gunfire resonates. She was gone days, then weeks, doing drugs, returning battered. In July, when drug dealers returned her at gunpoint, demanding money, her parents chained her.

The most important point about Linda is how lucky she is. She has a father at home, and a mother who told him to go buy ''a chain and two locks.'' Imagine how it is for single mothers when the siren of the street calls, particularly to male children.

In 1960, 5 percent of American births were illegitimate (such ''judgmental'' language had not yet fallen from favor). In 1988, 26 percent were, including 63 percent of black babies. This behavioral change is the main reason almost one-third of all children are paupers at some point before they are 18.

In 1965, Pat Moynihan wrote:

''From the wild Irish slums of the 19th century Eastern seaboard, to the riot-torn suburbs of Los Angeles, there is one unmistakable lesson in American history: A community that allows a large number of young men to grow up in broken families, dominated by women, never acquiring any stable relationship to male authority, never acquiring any rational expectations about the future -- that community asks for and gets chaos.''

Mr. Moynihan's anticipation of today's urban chaos was written when some dry data were signaling a dangerous disjunction. The welfare of children was no longer varying directly with the labor market.

Before then, when unemployment declined, so did new welfare cases. But suddenly dependency was an independent variable, increasing irrespective of the economy's performance. As Lawrence Mead of New York University says:

''The inequalities that stem from the workplace are now trivial in comparison to those stemming from family structure. What matters for success is not whether your father was rich or poor but whether you had a father at all.''

Last February, Sen. Moynihan wrote a passage for a Democratic report about children being the largest portion of America's poor. He wrote: ''All this is new. This circumstance did not exist during the New Deal era, half-a-century ago. It did not exist during the era of the Great Society, a quarter-century ago.''

Some Democratic staffers ''corrected'' what they assumed was an error, so Mr. Moynihan's passage read: ''This circumstance was not as recognized during the New Deal, a half-century ago, nor during the era of the Great Society.''

Such flinching from the fact that the problem is radically new is, Mr. Moynihan says, ''becoming the liberal orthodoxy.'' It is a way of clinging to this comforting assumption: Macro-economic conditions, which government can influence, can improve the conditions of poor people. That is decreasingly true for the millions whose life chances are spoiled by family structure.

This crisis has come upon us at a time when, and partly because, children are a direct concern to only a minority of adults. This, too, is new.

A century ago only 20 percent of U.S. households had no children under 18. Today 65 percent are. So only a minority of adults, a minority of adult incomes, are involved on behalf of children. Government policy reflects the fact that children now are a minority interest.

We know precious little about how government policy can get a purchase on the problem of ''behavioral poverty'' -- poverty rooted in habits and character traits. The challenge, to which government is now at most marginally relevant, is to stimulate what Professor Chester Finn of Vanderbilt University calls ''social capital accumulation.''

By social capital Mr. Finn means the morals, mores, habits and norms that are the lessons from billions of human experiences over thousands of years. Many pertain to families and parenting.

As Mr. Finn says, we need to teach and preach and be as censorious about these things as we are about smoking, cholesterol, recycling aluminum cans, experimenting on animals and saying rude things on campuses. For starters, people must come to believe that if they are going to have children, they have an obligation to care about them as fiercely as Linda Marrero's parents care about her.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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