We're No. 42!


October 23, 1991|By SUSAN P. LEVITON

Maryland lawmakers are singing a new tune. Faced with a budgetdeficit of $450 million this year, legislators are saying to our state's citizens: Services will be cut, programs will be eliminated, people will be hurt -- and we won't raise new revenues to halt this destruction until you clamor for additional taxes.

To date this hasn't happened, in spite of the pain it will inflict on our state's children. While we care about these children and their well-being, we don't want to pay the price to assure their safety, health and education. This situation sounds a bit like the country song that declares, ''Everybody wants to go to heaven, But nobody wants to die.''

Last year, the Children's Defense Fund ranked the 50 states on 10 basic indicators of children's well-being: Arizona and Maryland ranked worst.

This is particularly troubling when you realize the wealth of our state. While we have the fifth-highest median income of all the states, we rank 41st in infant mortality and 42nd in low-birthweight babies. We have 147,000 infants, toddlers and children without any form of health insurance. Almost every other 2-year old in Maryland is not immunized against any childhood disease.

We live in a state where the only facility that serves poor children and their families, and has no waiting list, is the morgue.

We have been unwilling to give a boost to those children unlucky enough to be born poor, whose numbers increase each year. During the last decade the percentage of black children living in poverty rose by 16 percent, with close to half of all black youngsters (43.8 percent) living in poverty. White children as a group fared even worse. The percentage of white youngsters in poverty rose to 15.4 percent, a shocking 36 percent increase.

With poverty comes inadequate nutrition, health and housing. Children who live in poverty are often hungry, are sicker than their ''non-poor'' peers and lack adequate shelter. Of children who live in poverty, 40 percent repeat at least one grade in school. Poor children are four times more likely to have below-average basic skills.

Inadequate housing is the major factor in school dropouts and failures. A poor child's room may be a convertible sofa in the family's living room, right next to the television and adjacent to the noisy kitchen.

All these factors, the cruel results of poverty, affect a child's ability to benefit from school, to learn and develop the skills needed to become a self-sufficient and contributing member of our society. These kids need and benefit from pre-kindergarten programs, school breakfast programs, school nurses, drop-out prevention programs and good quality instruction programs. Yet these are the very programs being proposed for cuts.

Susan P. Leviton, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, is president of Advocates for Children and Youth, Inc.

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