Indexing the needs of children

June 27, 1994|By Jonathan Freedman

THE ECONOMIC indicators that steer our market economy are relentlessly driving America's children into poverty. Yet there is no statistical gauge of our children's well-being -- no Dow Jones average -- that might guide economic decisions.

To see how the current economic thinking, which prizes low inflation, has affected children, compare their fortunes with the stock market's. Between 1980 and 1992, the Dow Jones average soared to record highs (despite the 1987 crash) while the number of children below the poverty line grew by 26 percent. Inflation and interest rates on loans reached their lowest point in decades, but the number of poor kids under age 6 skyrocketed by 43 percent.

Why doesn't Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan react to long-term increases in child poverty as an important economic trend when he decides whether or not to hike interest rates? XTC Because an authoritative barometer measuring the status of America's children is not among the economic indicators that guide decision-making. Statistics tracking whether kids live or die, flourish or fail, are simply left out of the equation.

America needs such a measure. Our country is affected as much, if not more, by the status of children as by the stock market. Children need to be taken into account when adults -- from the Fed, to the White House, to our house -- make economic decisions.

To fill the information gap, child-advocacy groups like Children Now of California, the Annie E. Casey Foundation of Baltimore and the Children's Defense Fund in Washington have made their own barometers.

Reading the children's indexes is as tedious until you realize that the statistic on rising infant mortality isn't about losing money, but lives.

Children Now, which has been publishing a "report card" for several years, measures California's performance on 27 benchmarks in five major categories: education, health, safety, teen years and family life. The state nearly flunked its 1993 report card after posting the highest child-poverty rate -- 25.3 percent, or one in four children -- since the state began collecting data in 1976. Over the most recent four years, youth homicides shot up 59 percent, teen births 23 percent, youth unemployment 81 percent.

"On 48 percent of those state benchmarks with enough data to determine a trend, California's performance is getting worse," warned the group's 1993 report.

Practically speaking, this means that taxpayers will be supporting more people on welfare and behind bars while the tax base of productive workers will be diminishing. Alarming illiteracy and school-dropout rates mean that our chronically underfunded and overcrowded schools are unable to educate tomorrow's citizens to the level demanded by a successful democratic society.

Nationally, the Reagan-Bush team, with grudging support of Congress, so mismanaged our children's trust fund from 1980 to 1992 that the number of poor children grew by 3 million.

In 1992, voters fired Bush and hired Bill Clinton, who advocated that America "invest in children." Child advocates say it's too early to see the results of the Clinton initiatives -- family leave, tax credits and vaccination programs. But Clinton's performance must be examined against objective measures of children's well-being, not good intentions.

Today, our children's bleak future is the greatest long-term threat to the economic future of this nation, yet Wall Street discounts the very social investments that can save our children. Investments like prenatal care, infant nutrition, polio vaccinations and Head Start pale beside the trillions invested in mutual funds.

It's time to establish a fair, reliable index of children's status -- a Children's Index. Statistically, it should be beyond reproach, simple to understand and should portray the whole child. Unlike the poverty line, which is based on outdated spending criteria from the early 1960s, the children's barometer must be kept up to date, reflecting current realities.

There is a danger that a children's index would reduce kids to numbers, with the blood and tears washed off their faces. But the far greater danger is to exclude people under 18 from the economic equation. There can be no long-term growth for America if children are not part of the investment.

Jonathan Freedman writes from San Diego.

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