But what is the 'village' of our day?

January 21, 1996|By Sara Engram

UNFORTUNATELY for Hillary Rodham Clinton, it is as difficult to balance the roles of first lady and provocative author as it is to be the president's wife and take a leading part in setting public policy.

Her new book, ''It Takes a Village and Other Lessons Children Teach Us,'' is full of reminiscences, common-sense observations, statistics and references to research. It is also comprehensive, with chapters devoted to everything from nutrition and television habits to school reform and health care.

But if you are looking for headlines, you'll have pretty slim pickings. That's one reason interviewers are having a hard time not asking those touchy questions about Whitewater or the White House travel-office imbroglio.

That's too bad, because few people have a better grasp of the obstacles facing American families and children as they try to raise healthy, happy, productive children. Mrs. Clinton clearly cares about these issues, and just as clearly knows her stuff. Surely, though, she has more forceful, focused opinions about what we as a nation need to do to help families than she offers in this book.

Her touchstone ''village'' is the Illinois town in which she grew up in the post-war years, a time when households could thrive on one income, when communities were safe enough for bike riding and other childhood adventures, when neighbors kept an eye out for each other's children. We all know that today's ''village'' is far different, often in tragic ways. Why? Exploring that question could have produced a riveting book, especially if it steered clear of well-worn ideological ruts.

Since the 1950s, we have literally spent billions of dollars to fight poverty, help mothers and children and address many other social ills. Conservatives attack that very effort as the reason for social decline: Government itself is the villain. Liberals tend to take the opposite view, asserting that government simply hasn't done enough or done it well enough.

That's where the debate about social policy gets stuck. Rather than a recitation of the problems, what we really need is some sage advice on moving past the current stalemate.

Daunting question

We need someone to wrestle with a daunting question: Why, despite all the money and effort expended in the past few decades, have things become so much worse for families, especially poor families? Why do we feel that all families, of any economic status, are under siege, that a stable household can't be taken for granted, that childhood is filled with more perils than possibilities -- in short, that we have lost our moorings?

Now that book would have put questions about Whitewater and Travelgate on the back burner. But alas, it's probably not a book a first lady could write, especially one trying to extricate herself from controversy, not stir it up.

Solutions to the problems facing children and families will inevitably step on toes -- and not just conservative toes. Take the issue of spending existing government funds more wisely. One prime example is Head Start, a truly wonderful program for the 1960s but one not yet fully redesigned to meet such needs of the 1990s as full-day, year-round child care.

Or take welfare reform: Has either party honestly acknowledged the evil effects of a system that robs poor men of any role in the family? Conservatives and liberals share the blame for marginalizing males, and then for addressing the inevitable consequences with ineffective and poorly managed programs.

''It takes a village to raise a child,'' the African proverb on which this book's title is based, is a useful image. But after frequent repetition it has become a cliche. Mrs. Clinton doesn't succeed in infusing it with new meaning.

What exactly is the village of 1996? The neighborhood? The schools? The non-profit sector? The government? At various points in this book, it seems to be any or all of these. Eventually, ''the village'' becomes a vague metaphor no more useful than ''the system,'' the counter-culture's epithet for the sinister forces that keep injustice rampant in the world.

That doesn't diminish the magnitude of the challenges facing American families. But if we are to succeed in meeting them -- and in using finite resources effectively -- we need a better road map than Mrs. Clinton offers here.

K?

Sara Engram is deputy editorial-page editor of The Sun.

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