Our crime against poor children . . . Unshackling welfare

August 27, 1996|By Jack L. Levin

THIRTY-THREE YEARS ago tomorrow Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his ''I Have a Dream'' speech to the applause of 250,000 on the Washington Mall. Many great leaders spoke that day: A. Philip Randolph, Jr., of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters; Eugene Carson Blake, of the National Council of Churches; Walter P. Reuther, of the United Automobile Workers; Floyd B. McKissick, of the Congress of Racial Equality; Whitney M. Young Jr., of the National Urban League; Roy Wilkins of the NAACP; the venerable socialist, Norman Thomas; the sports celebrity Jackie Robinson and others.

All dealt with the same theme -- the call for jobs and freedom so long denied to black citizens. King's words, of course, had the greatest rhetorical longevity, as he compelled listeners to identify with the misery of children and to feel the hurt of brothers and sisters whose troubles had been so long ignored and denied.

Another speaker that day stirred me especially: Rabbi Joachim Prinz, national president of the organization of which I was the state president, the American Jewish Congress. From personal experience as former chief rabbi of Berlin during the rise of Hitler, he spoke of the crime of silence.

''America,'' he cried, ''must not become like Germany, a nation of onlookers at evil. . . . Not merely black America, but all of America must speak up and act, and not for the sake of the Negro, not for the sake of the black community, but for the sake of the idea and the aspiration of America itself.

Not enough to hope and pray

''Our children,'' he continued, ''in every school across the land, each morning pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the republic for which it stands. They speak fervently and innocently of this land as the land of 'liberty and justice for all.' . . . It is not enough to hope together, to pray together. We must work together to make this children's oath a reality in a morally renewed and united America.''

Those are words to live by today. With so much to be proud of, how can we live with the shame that child-poverty rates in the United States are two to nine times as high as in other leading nations? Welfare must be reformed, not repealed.

We must not remain silent about the recently enacted welfare-reform measure. We cannot accept that 5 million low-income children and pregnant women must be left without basic health insurance while we lavish billions of dollars on defense against a deceased foreign foe. We cannot count upon states to deal with the unpopular issue of needy children.

In all the media clamor and mindless repetition of non-facts and speculative trivia, there is a deafening silence about the sufferings of millions of American children.

We are silent about children whose basic health needs are unmet, who are unprotected from abuse and neglect. We are silent as a new law is enacted that mandates work requirements for welfare recipients, but provides no child care for those working mothers; that limits the earned-income tax credit; that reduces food-stamp benefits from 78 cents to 62 cents per meal per child.

When will we cry out against the hypocritical pretense that drastic reductions in the support of single mothers (many unemployable) with dependent children will affect only the mother and will not harm the children?

Performing at the televised conventions to snare votes, the pols weep crocodile tears over poor children, then devolve the responsibility for their food, clothing, shelter and health to hard-pressed or bankrupt local communities. Little children (and too often their mothers) don't vote, protest or contribute to political campaigns.

Why must we care about other people's kids living on streets among drugs and guns? Why must we build more prisons? Because today's forgotten children in poverty will shape tomorrow's world. Our crime against poor children is the silence of political expediency.

Jack L. Levin is a Baltimore businessman.

Pub Date: 8/27/96

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