What have we done to children?

April 18, 1994|By Mona Charen

THE evidence continues to mount that the "Me" generation is sorely neglecting its children.

The Carnegie Corporation of New York has released a new study analyzing a variety of data about how children are faring in this country -- and concludes that unless serious reform begins now, the outlook is bleak, not just for these children but for society as a whole.

In 1960, just 5 percent of children in America were born to unmarried mothers. By 1990, that figure had jumped to 28 percent. Only 7 percent of youngsters under the age of 3 lived with one parent in 1960. By 1990, 27 percent, more than one in four, lived with only one parent. And, as is well-documented by now, children in single-parent families are far more likely to be poor, to be emotionally disturbed, to fail at school, to become violent, to have illegitimate children themselves and to taste of the varieties of human misery than do those who grow up in two-parent families (biological or adoptive).

"Collectively, we all have to say, 'Enough!' " said Judith E. Jones, director of the National Center for Children in Poverty. Agreed. But what shall we do?

The Carnegie report recommends government-business partnerships to guarantee "quality" child care and overhauling the health-care system to provide pre-natal care and immunizations for young children. It also urges businesses, even those with fewer than 50 employees, to provide four to six months of partially paid leave upon the birth or adoption of an infant.

The Carnegie report is encouraging because, unlike so many of its ilk in the past, it does not place responsibility for the parlous state of America's children on poverty or racism. Children are in trouble, the report seems to be saying, because of the conduct and choices of parents.

The kids in the worst trouble are the 3 million children living in poverty. It is these children who are most often seriously neglected, abused and deprived.

It is primarily these children the report has in mind when it laments the number of children who are witnessing stabbings, shootings and beatings with their own eyes. And it is these children who represent the huge jump -- from 300,000 in 1987 to 460,000 in 1991 -- in the number of children placed in foster care.

What does a society do with large numbers of incompetent, often drug-abusing women who have babies they cannot adequately care for? The Carnegie report highlights the problems of the poor but presents proposals -- like more generous parental leave -- that would primarily affect the middle class.

The report does tout programs like one in South Carolina that teams young pregnant girls with experienced mothers and others that offer parenting classes for pregnant girls, but those are the kinds of programs that cannot be replicated on a national scale.

And even if they could, they probably wouldn't work. The men and women who are abusing and neglecting their children are doing so only partly out of ignorance. These are people who are barely functioning. Their kids go unimmunized not because the health-care system denies them vaccine, but because they are careless parents. The overwhelming majority of kids in foster care are there because their parents are drug addicts. The Carnegie Corporation would do well to consider endorsing more rapid termination of parental rights for children who spend their entire childhoods in the twilight of foster care when they could be placed in loving, adoptive families.

The Carnegie report is right to cite the high divorce rate and working parents among the problems faced by America's children. But there is a world of difference between the problems faced by middle-class kids, even those with divorced parents, and those of the underclass.

If we are to collectively say "Enough" to the problems of children in poverty, we are going to have to overhaul the welfare system, not health care. We are going to have to change the culture of moral vacuity, not the parental leave allowance of small companies.

It comes down to this: If tomorrow, the number of children being born to single women dropped to zero, the problems of child poverty would almost completely disappear.

Mona Charen is a syndicated columnist.

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