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Poverty is stalking America's children in record numbers.

"The State of America's Children Yearbook 1995," a national report released this week by the Children's Defense Fund in Washington, D.C., has found that one in four American children are poor, the highest poverty level in 30 years. One in three will reportedly experience poverty, abuse or neglect or drop out of school before reaching age 18.That means 16 million children nationwide and more than 78,000 in Utah live in poverty.

The sobering news should remind policymakers that children must be protected from economic and social policies and decisions that shape their world and over which they have no control.

It also serves as a ringing indictment against policies that have not significantly improved the well-being of children and may, in fact, have hurt them.

Virtually everyone, from the average taxpayer to the elected official to the welfare recipient, agrees that the existing "safety net" for children has major holes in it. All call for change.

But there's little agreement on how that can be accomplished. In a debate that crosses political and socioeconomic lines, critics of the U.S. House of Representatives plan to give states block grants to design their own welfare programs have cautioned that without minimal built-in standards children will suffer rather than prosper. Policymakers, they fear, will see the pots of money as "raidable" when other needs crop up.

That has happened before. During the past session, Utah legislators raided a Medicaid savings account that had been accrued to fund expansion of Medicaid to uninsured poor people.

And because the block grants include a $4.6 billion funding cut aimed at reducing the deficit, the critics warn that should a state's economy sour, children will be placed on waiting lists or ignored when they need crisis services.

They are also angry that the poor are being singled out for cuts, while nothing has been done to reduce "corporate welfare."

Proponents say that the system has clearly failed and most state governments, including Utah's, welcome the chance to tailor their own programs to meet their local needs.

Unfortunately, the intended beneficiaries of these programs - the children who live in poverty - have been largely ignored in the debate. Instead, a great deal of time and effort has been spent pointing fingers at fat bureaucracies or welfare parents who won't work.

In truth, America's welfare system has been built on disincentives to work. Even a small paycheck has been enough to cost a family its health-care benefits, its welfare grant, its child-care subsidy, without providing enough money to live on or purchase the services in the free market. It has, in part, perpetuated the cycle of poverty.

Many states have already tried their hand at welfare reform. Officials at the Utah Office of Family Support point with pride to the Single Parent Employment Demonstration project, which has had great success in helping poor Utah families become independent.

SPED is, initially, a very expensive program because of support services like job training, education and child care until parents earn enough to pay the tab themselves. It provides a Medicaid bridge so that families do not instantly lose their health-care coverage. It also enhances child-support collection efforts. But because it gets families off welfare with the hope of staying independent, officials say SPED ultimately saves a lot of money.

Advocates and welfare recipients seem to share the state's enthusiasm for the program.

But SPED points out a serious concern: Meaningful welfare reform will require an early investment if it is to reap long-term results. Without support services like child care, parents will be unable to work unless we want a policy that encourages children to raise themselves.

Commitment to helping families has to be sincere and long-range. Scrapping programs in response to shifting economies could leave children - voiceless and voteless as they are - without protection. That would be unconscionable.

Ultimately, the objective should be a safe and nurturing environment where children can grow up without hunger, abuse and neglect or minds devoid of dreams.