WASHINGTON. — This year's recession hit a lot of Americans. But while most of us are waiting out a temporary slump, America's children have been in a decade-long depression. The children of 1992 lead less healthy, more dangerous and poorer lives than the children of 1980.
Over the past decade, America worsened in six key indicators of child well-being. The rate of babies born at lower birth weight is 3 percent higher today than it was in 1980. The rate of births to single teen-agers is 14 percent higher. The proportion of children who live in single parent families has grown by 13 percent. American adolescents are more often put in juvenile custody. American teen-agers are more likely to die by murder, accident or suicide. And the proportion of children who live under the poverty threshold has grown by a shocking 22 percent.
Any one of these statistics would be alarming. But together, they tell us something even more important and disturbing. They reveal what I view as the pivotal social development of our times: the decline in the capacity of typical American families to raise their children well.
Today's American mothers and fathers love their children no less than they did 10 years ago and are no less dedicated to caring for and supervising them. But in many cases, forces these parents cannot control make their tasks much more difficult. Changes in the economy and failures of social policy combine to place today's families under more stress than ever before, in more ways than ever before.
The children's crisis is really a family crisis. Compared to 1980, families have less real income, less time and lead more stressful lives. Average working hours are higher, especially for women. Medical care is more expensive and more difficult to find. And families have fewer informal supports like extended families, or strong community neighborhood and religious institutions. In the boom years of the '80s, the real median income of families with children declined by five percent.
What can we do about it? Well we have two choices.
First, we could blame American families. We can pretend that they have easy decisions to make and that all over the country, for some perverse reason, they're making the wrong ones.
We can blame a single mother for working and having latchkey kids. Or we could blame her for not working and having AFDC benefits a quarter lower than she would have had 10 years ago.
We can blame today's minimum-wage employee for not getting his family of three out of poverty, as he could have done under the old minimum wage in 1979.
We can blame parents who buy a house for spending more hours at work to make the mortgage payments. Or we can blame them for not buying a house and not providing their children with a home or a safe neighborhood.
Such accusations are useless and silly. But too many people find them a convenient diversion from the second choice: effective response to problems of child poverty, of increasing work and family time demands, of teen pregnancy and of neighborhood violence.
There is no way around it. The surest way to help children is to help their families. That means public policies that assist families in caring for their children -- for example, tax and wage reforms that leave fewer children poor -- and school and community services that help single and working parents provide the kind of care they want for their children.
We need new leave policies, day-care systems, school reforms and work-site practices, to help working parents nurture and supervise their children. And we need improved health systems that take into account the range of child and family needs and make sure every child gets medical care.
This agenda is neither new or radical. It is simply a renewal of our nation's commitment to strong families, in the tradition of free public schools, settlement houses, child-labor laws, mortgage deductions, the minimum wage, the original aid to dependent children and the eight-hour work day. None of these decisions were easy, but in the long run they all bolstered American families and made the lives of American children safer, healthier and better.
For a decade now we have put off similar decisions and the results are a disgrace. We may remember the 1980s as a decade of prosperity, but for many of our children they were a decade of rising poverty. They were years of stunning advances in medical technology, but years in which more and more children went without basic health care. They were an era in which politicians preached family values, but public policy failed to meet the real needs of families.
To continue on this path is to deny our duty to our children, our country and ourselves. Our society is asking this comparatively small generation of children to take responsibility for the largest deficits and largest retirement population in history, without giving them the tools and the opportunities to meet those responsibilities. If we don't make some changes, we'll fail not only our children but ourselves.
American families still seek for children a better future than they had, safe streets and roads, a good education, a healthy body, a sense of belonging to a larger community, good values and good times with family and friends. They are ready to work hard and sacrifice to achieve these goals. It's time to ask whether this nation is willing to provide the help families need.
Douglas W. Nelson is executive director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the nation's largest philanthropy established for the benefit of disadvantaged children.