Americans can derive both hope and embarrassment from the annual report issued by the United Nations last week on the "State of the World's Children."

Hope because dramatic progress has been made, indicating that the world can continue to improve upon its record of having saved the lives of nearly 4 million youngsters who would have perished without immunizations over the past decade.Embarrassment because developing countries are now more aggressive about caring for their most precious resource - their children - than the United States is.

Even among industrialized nations, the United States ranks only 19th on immunization rates and still has a high rate of infant mortality. Preventable diseases like measles have begun to rise again in the United States. Moreover, even though the U.S. economy grew 20 percent in the past decade, some 4 million more children fell below the poverty line. The number of homeless American families with children has risen from 21 percent to 31 percent over the past decade.

Since the United States has been shouldering the great bulk of the cost and responsibility of protecting the free world from aggression, there are sharp limits to how much America must apologize for not doing better by children.

Yet the fact remains that if only a small part of this nation's military budget and those of the other leading powers were redirected, such problems as disease, malnutrition, poverty and illiteracy could largely be solved.

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The United States cannot do the job single-handedly. But as the world's only true superpower and one of the richest nations, America certainly can and should lead the way.

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