The welfare of America's children has plummeted in recent years, but even within the liberal Clinton organization there seems to be no movement to address this problem. Why have we been silent on this issue for so long?
The silence can in part be traced to Americans' preoccupation with the present. But efforts to improve the condition of children would involve substantial up-front costs, while the primary benefits would be realized only slowly over time.The inaction may also be traced to the fact that today's adults have been caught in a squeeze by the slower economic growth of the past two decades. To pay the taxes to support their parents, they have cut back on their support of their children.
The situation, however, turns out to be more complex. Today's children have lost not once, but twice. A good deal of the children's losses can also be traced to the gains of their parents' generation, not just their grandparents' generation. Today's adults have benefited from three interrelated developments in recent years. First, parents are working more. In the past 20 years, the labor-force participation rate of women has increased by nearly a third, and by 1990 two-thirds of married women with children were in the labor force.
Second, divorce also has became more accepted, with the number of divorced people increasing more than 200 percent, nearly seven times faster than the overall population in the past 20 years. By 1990 about one of every two marriages was expected to end in divorce.
Third, children were also increasingly likely to be born to unwed mothers. By 1990 more than one of four babies was born to an unwed mother.
The children have also suffered economically. Although the overall poverty rate in 1990 was only marginally above the 1970 rate, the likelihood of a child living in poverty soared in the 20 years. In 1990 the poverty rate exceeded 20 percent for all children and was nearly 50 percent for children living in single-parent households.
To achieve a major improvement in the state of the child, a multidimensional attack on the problem must be launched. There must also be a complete rethinking of the delivery of government services. In addition to health-care reform, which will certainly benefit children, it is essential that attention also be given to child care and education.
The time has come to lay the groundwork for a society that treats children better. Anyone who has studied the history of wars knows how bloody civil wars can be, and if we continue down the path that we are heading, we will most certainly find ourselves in the midst of an ugly civil conflict, an intergenerational conflict. Today's children are our future, and if we continue to fail these children, we will only fail ourselves.