Children's welfare is problem for whole nation, advocate says

Q & A

April 19, 1994|By Laura Lippman | Laura Lippman,Sun Staff Writer

When Susan P. Leviton started Advocates for Children and Youth five years ago, people talked about improving children's lives as a matter of moral responsibility.

That tack didn't change the course of public policy. So now advocates like Ms. Leviton are trying a new approach: arguing that taking care of children makes economic sense. The United States no longer has the luxury of unproductive citizens, she says, so we had better make sure our children get the best education and care possible.

A member of Gov. William Donald Schaefer's Commission on Welfare Policy and an outspoken presence in Annapolis, Ms. Leviton does not give high marks to the recently adjourned General Assembly. But she thinks progress has been made since she started Advocates for Children and Youth.

Q: So are things getting better?

A: In some ways we are making progress. In America, everyone thought: "Oh, parents take care of children."

Most parents want to take care of children, but a lot of parents can't take care of children, because of a lack of jobs or a lack of resources.

The hardest thing is to convince people that we have to care for everybody's kids, because one day, your kid is going to be walking down the street with some kid who didn't have anything.

Q: So you're arguing that this is a public safety issue?

A: And an economic issue. The number of kids is smaller today than it was 10 years ago. In Maryland, children used to be 35 percent of the population; it's now 24 percent.

But the baby-boom generation is a very large generation. If we want to retire, we have to guarantee that every kid is going to be productive. . . .

The issue really comes down to whether we have the political will to do anything about it. In that sense, this last legislative session was really disappointing.

Q: Where do you fault the General Assembly?

A: People were presented with the facts, and they were unwilling to grapple with the difficult issues. Basically, what they did was enact a bunch of laws that looked like they did a lot really good things, but when you look at each law, they didn't do anything that was really significant.

People who work with this are tired of politicians kissing kids, but doing nothing more. We now have the data [through a demographic project called Kids Count], and we want to hold people accountable.

Q: A lot of these areas seem so intangible. Aren't these problems difficult to solve?

A: The interesting thing about the Kids Count thing is that it shows that when you look at a problem and put adequate resources to it, you can make a difference.

Let me give you an example: In Maryland, we had one of the worst infant mortality rates in the country, and I think Maryland got embarrassed about that. They put together a commission, the Health Department started directing funds, and we went from 14 deaths per 1,000 infants born every year to 9.6.

When we make a concerted effort, we can make a difference. A lot of people think when you give money to poor kids, you're just throwing it down a hole. But money does make a difference.

Q: Don't you find that part of the problem is that people like kids, but they don't particularly like their parents?

A: That's one of the biggest problems. People say that they care about kids, but they hate poor kids' parents.

In the '60s, the elderly were poorer than kids, and America decided, as a group, that this was a shame. . . . And guess what? The elderly are no longer the poorest in the nation. Kids are.

And the reason this has prevailed is because lawmakers have said, "Well, their parents are lazy and shiftless, and therefore we're not going to adequately support children." Another problem is that people like to make policy based on myth.

Q: For example?

A: The best example is that everyone thinks that everyone on welfare has five, six, or seven children. The truth of the matter is that, in the '60s, people on welfare had three children. Today, in Maryland, the average person has one child.

The second myth that everyone loves is that you get on welfare and you stay for life. The truth is that 83 percent of people get off welfare and come back.

And that's the issue -- they come back. If you want to do anything about welfare, the smartest thing to do would be to create jobs and make sure people stay employed.

Q: How do you do that?

A: You help them get child care. You help them with crises, so they can stay at work.

The middle class naturally does that with its own children. They help them find jobs, they help them make contacts.

Yet we take people with no support systems, people who don't have good educations and don't have good skills, and we say: "Go out and make it on your own, and if you don't, you're lazy and shiftless."

Q: Any compliments for the governor or the legislature?

A: On the adoption issue, the governor was supportive and the legislature was a real problem. One of the bills the governor put in said if a father has had no relationship with a kid for over a year, then we're going to be able to terminate a father's rights.

Well, the House Judiciary Committee, which is overwhelmingly male, was appalled. Many of them thought we should wait and the state should take care of this kid, and the kid should live in foster homes. The legislature basically said fathers' rights are more important than kids' rights.

The legislature did some good things, too. They passed stronger child-support enforcement laws. They allowed hearsay evidence in some child-abuse cases. They changed the definition of child abuse to include mental abuse. They passed a lead-paint bill, which wasn't great, but it's a beginning.

But when it came for them to make major commitments, they failed terribly. Because it was an election year, there was a lot of show and not a lot of go.

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