Poverty in America has hit a three-decade high, with children the poorest of the poor. One in four U.S. children is already poor, and one-third will face poverty, abuse and neglect or drop out of school before age 18.

Those are the findings of "The State of America's Children Yearbook," released Tuesday by the Children's Defense Fund in Washington, D.C. Fund President Marian Wright Edelman held a teleconference with 20 newspapers, including the Deseret News, to beg the American public to join the debate on whether public policies help or hurt vulnerable children."I have always thought that there were certain moral and fairness lines that our nation would not cross," Edelman said.

But she believes those lines were crossed when the House voted to cut or turn into block grants the child safety-net programs while leaving untouched "corporate welfare. The unfairness of this is really quite breathtaking when one sees the non-poor were not touched. The assault on America's children is going to leave millions unprotected."

Edelman said the child-welfare and child-protection systems have many serious problems and need to be fixed. And, she said, the Children's Defense Fund supports some block grants.

But she said putting the whole range of programs, from food stamps to welfare to child care to foster care, into block grants without requiring states to maintain minimal service levels amounts to a "reckless, across-the-board assault against children."

Edelman said block grants could be designed to preserve child entitlements, while giving states the flexibility they crave and improving delivery services.

A Utah advocate for children agrees. "When the elderly were the most endangered group of Americans, we guaranteed they would not go hungry or lack basic medical care," said Rosalind McGee, Utah Children director. "Now it is our children who are in danger, and we need to guarantee their social security as well.

"At a time when over 78,000 Utah children are poor, almost 7,000 are abused and neglected and over 4,000 drop out of school, Congress should be strengthening rather than slashing federal child protection and investments."

The Children's Defense Fund believes that many of the programs endangered by Congress have already proven their effectiveness, including Head Start, immunizations, prenatal care, Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition, child care and teen-pregnancy prevention.

"If you want people off welfare, do it by creating jobs. Give them the tools to work, like job training and child health. I'm not here to defend (welfare) as it exists, but you don't just throw children off," Edelman said.

According to Edelman and the study, Congress could eliminate all children's programs without denting the budget deficit. The $46 billion proposed cuts in children's programs are joined by an "increase in federal welfare with capital gains tax breaks for the rich. We are trying to continue the unequal distribution of resources at the expense of the poor and legal immigrants."

She also called for measures to strengthen child-support enforcement. According to Utah's Office of Recovery Services, Utah children are owed more than $300 million in child support.

"You can get flexibility without undercutting entitlements," Edelman said. "We are an underdeveloped nation in terms of caring for and protecting our children."

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ADDITIONAL INFORMATION

In dire straits

"The State of America's Children Yearbook 1995" found that:

- 3 million U.S. children were reported abused or neglected in 1993 (27,047 in Utah).

- In 1994, one in four homeless people was a child. Numbers weren't available for Utah, but local shelter staff report they're seeing record numbers of children.

- 14.2 million children relied on food stamps in 1993 (74,253 in Utah).

- More than 9.4 million children had no health insurance in 1993.

- The maximum cash welfare benefit, combined with food stamps, places a family of three at 72 percent of the federal poverty line.