Enemies and Kids


January 05, 1992|By SARA ENGRAM

Sometimes a bumper sticker slogan can grab hold of your mind and not let go. Recently I spotted one that deftly hit on a simple truth. It read:

"Do we fear our enemies more than we love our children?"

On all the levels that count, the only honest answer I could give was yes.

As the end of the Cold War brings a pause in frenzied military buildups, we Americans find ourselves watching our former mortal enemies struggle against anarchy, hunger and the oncoming chill of a brutal winter. But here at home, plenty of Americans are asking themselves: Is this how a Cold War "victory" is supposed to look?

In an economy that seems to have lost its direction and its nerve, the daily headlines tell over and over again the story of children and their needs getting the short end of a short stick. That would never have happened to the defense industry during the Cold War. Now, even without a superpower stand-off, the dream of a peace dividend seems a distant memory and, once again, programs affecting children are fighting just to keep from losing ground.

In Maryland and elsewhere, anti-tax sentiment is putting pressure on programs children count on most. A prime example is education -- which any successful society sees as a sacred duty to its young.

To make up for budget shortfalls in Baltimore city, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke is threatening a temporary halt in the most basic of educational activities by closing classrooms for a week. Meanwhile, this fiscal year Maryland colleges and universities are taking one of the biggest cuts in appropriations of state tax funds of any higher education system in the nation.

Maryland is not alone. This past week, news reports of impoverished schools highlighted a similar dilemma in New Hampshire, a state that prides itself on having neither an income tax nor a sales tax. Any increase in state funding for education would almost certainly mean resorting to one or both of these taxes -- something the state's Republican governor is loath to do. But without more state funding, New Hampshire almost surely faces further decline in the quality of education it can offer its young people.

The bad news for children has been building for several years. Early last year, the Center for the Study of Social Policy released the results of a study called "Kids Count," which documented a clear deterioration between 1980 and 1988 in the social and economic condition of American children.

According to this study, those years brought significant increases in the percentage of children in poverty, in the number of juveniles who are incarcerated, in out-of-wedlock births and in violent deaths of teen-agers. There was also an increase in the percentage of babies born at low birth weights, which is a prime contributor to high infant mortality rates and a factor that increases the risk of physical and mental impairments in newborns.

More recent figures released last month by the Bush administration indicate that the pattern of deterioration in infant health continued in 1989, a year when the economy was still strong and the trend should have been more positive.

Statistics can be dull in themselves. But behind all these numbers are individual tragedies that, taken together, will cost the country immensely in years to come -- whether from increased costs for welfare, Medicaid or prisons or simply from lost productivity.

Stories like these should come as no surprise -- and they are not unique to this country. In 1986, the Worldwatch Institute warned that the chief dangers to national security in much of the world did not come from external military threats but rather from deteriorating land and resources and from national budgets weighed down by crushing military expenditures. It's not just Americans who have let fear of an enemy overshadow the needs of their children.

In "The State of the World's Children, 1992," the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) noted that one-quarter of a million children die each week, while another million are condemned by malnourishment to a life of ill-health.

"This is not a threatened tragedy or an impending crisis," says UNICEF's executive director, James P. Grant. "It happened today and it will happen again tomorrow."

UNICEF notes that major strides for children -- including reductions in malnutrition and disease and a basic education for all young people -- could be met by reallocating 10 percent of military expenditures in the developing world and 1 percent in the industrialized world.

In other words, children everywhere could reap enormous benefits if their elders could realize that fearing enemies at the expense of their own children is a sure way to national defeat.

Sara Engram is editorial page director of The Evening Sun. Her column appears here each Sunday.

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