Cuomo urges new focus on poor children

Band together to obtain more government funding, Baltimore conference told

April 06, 1999|By Kate Shatzkin | Kate Shatzkin,SUN STAFF

Former New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo urged a conference of child advocates and Methodist leaders yesterday to band together with a "heroic message" and grab their share of government surpluses to reduce the ranks of the nation's poor children.

"At a time like this, I would think that religion should go to its central theme: `Love one another,' " Cuomo told an audience at the National Symposium on Children and Poverty, a three-day conference at Baltimore's Omni Inner Harbor Hotel.

"Republicans and Democrats alike had created the impression that government fails, that government is wasteful," Cuomo said. "They used welfare to do that. For years, they said welfare doesn't work. That got translated into: `Programs for the poor don't work.' "

The conference is sponsored by the Board of Child Care, a program linked with the United Methodist Church, in honor of the 125th anniversary of the board's founding in Baltimore as a small ministry for children. The organization, based in Randallstown, runs a range of programs for children and families.

The conference occurs as United Methodist churches and related programs try to increase their involvement with poor children. A 1996 letter from the church's Council of Bishops said the church had been losing children at an "alarming" rate, and losing its connections to the poor.

"That trend has continued to this day, and the poor are seldom present in our worship and fellowship," the letter said. "The decline in church school enrollment and attendance among children in United Methodist churches precisely at a time when children are increasingly at risk physically and spiritually is a judgment upon us and a call to immediate action."

Cuomo, asked yesterday how the church could fulfill that mission, said that to make any political impact, people of all religions should band together and make children their cause. That didn't happen forcefully enough, he said, when Congress was considering welfare reform.

He said advocates cannot depend on politicians to take up the cause.

By recent measures, some conditions for America's children have improved. Child-support collection is up 20 percent, according to a government report, and teen-age pregnancy is down. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University's School of Public Health, the percentage of young children who live in families with incomes below the federal poverty line fell from 26 percent in 1993 to 23 percent in 1996.

But David Liederman, executive director of the Child Welfare League of America, called that improvement "a hair" -- pitifully small in the context of the booming stock market. He said those numbers don't include the true costs of welfare reform -- costs that won't be known until the economy's growth begins to slow.

In remarks welcoming Cuomo, Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend said she intends to have families evaluated as a whole instead of using as many as six case workers to address their different needs.

"There is a moment when we are so rich as a nation that we can reach out that we can change the way we do business," she said.

Pub Date: 4/06/99

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