Our Children: the Hungry Americans

Original Publication: Vogue, November 1985

Though one out of five of our children is poor, no rock stars sing for their suppers. But Senator Moynihan wants to bring charity back home.

All last summer, while the superstars of rock were performing at “Live Aid” to help the starving children of Africa and “We Are the World” was inundating the airwaves, one-fifth of all American children were living in poverty. For the first time in our history, children are the poorest segment of our population. Contrary to popular myth, nearly two out of three of these children are white.

These realities contrast starkly with what most middle-class Americans believe about American life; yet, sociologists have predicted that by the year 2000, one-third of all American children will have received welfare payments. Despite a lot of lip service from public officials about the preciousness of children, most are doing precious little to combat the increasing numbers of children growing up poor. “There will be no new major social programs in this century,” New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, one of Congress’s leading social policy experts, states flatly. “The children of this country are not represented politically. They can’t vote.”

“People call us and tell us they haven’t eaten for days, and that their children have stolen food from the grocery store,” says Donna Lawrence of New York City’s Hunger Hotline. In New York City alone, privately run food pantries and soup kitchens serve 318,000 emergency meals a month, the majority of them to hungry children. “A typical call,” Ms. Lawrence says, “is from a mother who is nine months pregnant with her second child who has just been evicted. The welfare office tells her she has to wait three weeks and gives her our number.”

Unlike social security benefits to the elderly, or government payments to veterans or the disabled, which are indexed for inflation, welfare payments to children – which vary widely from state to state – are not. During the ‘seventies, for example, such benefits were cut, in real dollars, by a third.

“If you are under six years old, you are nearly six times more likely to be poor than if you are over sixty-five,” Senator Moynihan says. “Throughout history old people were always the poorest in any society, because they couldn’t work anymore, and they were sick. Suddenly that’s changed because family structure has changed. Children often no longer have two parents; they have a single parent, and a single parent can’t do as much as two earners.” Senator Moynihan and other experts predict that the majority of children born in 1985 will live at some time in a single-parent family.

“Some welfare children are going to turn out to be nuclear physicists, great doctors and lawyers,” Senator Moynihan continues. “But as a population, poor children aren’t going to do as well as others. We know statistically how these people perform in school and at getting jobs, and it’s very bad: they perform the least well of any group. Today’s poor children could be the largest cohort of such people the country has ever known.”

Unmarried teens who get pregnant and keep their babies add to the pool of poor children. (In 1950, out of wedlock births made up 14 percent of teenage births; in 1982, that number had shot up to 51.5 percent.) The social pressure to get married has decreased, and teenagers realize that young fathers often have few prospects for employment.

But, at the same time, nearly 80 percent of all children with single mothers under the age of twenty-five are poor. These mothers are frequently high school dropouts with little or no employment experience – and they can neither find nor afford child care in order to go out and learn a trade. Few jobs are open to them anyway. “When given a choice,” says Paul Smith, director of research for the Children’s Defense Fund in Washington, DC, “Americans do not prefer to hire the young or to give them economic opportunities in proportion to their numbers.”

In the last six years, however, the sharpest increase in numbers of poor children has come from two-parent white families. The reason: the recent economic recession and continued high unemployment rates in certain regions of the country.

The Reagan budget of 1981 cut social programs that helped children by ten billion dollars. It cut education programs by a third; only a fraction of those cuts has been restored. Because of soaring budget deficits, special-interest lobbies more powerful than children, and the current sterotype of welfare “cheaters,” there is scant hope that any more cuts will be restored. Who, then, does speak for the children of America? According to Senator Moynihan, “If you want to know who shows up to testify at Congressional hearings and who says we represent a national constituency and we care about children, it’s the Junior League – not the NAACP and never the AFL-CIO.”

The Association of Junior Leagues has emerged in recent years as a visible and tenacious lobby for children’s issues. League volunteers work on the grass-roots level, running programs that aid needy children; when legislation affecting these programs is before Congress, the AJL’s “legislative network” puts thousands of members in touch with their elected representatives, particularly those who serve on key committees. “We’re one of the few women’s groups that have taken an interest in things that affect the poor,” says Sally Y. Orr, director of public policy for the Association of Junior Leagues. “Feminist groups are very big on pay equity and abortion, but don’t deal with the feminization of poverty that much.”

They’ve got an uphill battle: the most widely discussed book on social programs on the Georgetown cocktail circuit in the past year has been conservative political scientist Charles Murray’s Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950 – 1980. Mr. Murray argues that government programs for the poor create more poverty. He suggests scrapping all of them, and leaving the poor to shift for themselves, looking for jobs as they can, calling on family, friends, and publicly and privately funded local services for assistance. Donna Lawrence of the Hunger Hotline, which deals mainly with such privately funded groups, disagrees: “People who volunteered to do this kind of work for moral or religious reasons a few years ago are tired and depressed; it’s difficult work. We can’t afford to have people’s lives based on the volunteer instinct. We can’t count on that.”

In the black community, however, where the soaring rate of out-of-wedlock births – now 55 percent – is threatening the gains blacks have made educationally and professionally in the last two decades, groups have begun to design programs and discuss ways to stem the tide of poverty among black children. After many years of emphasizing civil rights, and in the absence of government support, the NAACP and the National Urban League last year called a Black Family Summit conference in Nashville, Tennessee, to target the black family crisis as their number-one priority for research and action.

The statistics on black children are chilling. In some of Chicago’s inner-city housing projects, for example, the illegitimacy rate is over 90 percent. Black infant mortality is twice that of whites, black children are three times more likely than white children to be murdered between the ages of five and nine, and black children are twelve times more likely than whites to live with a parent who has never married. Through no fault of their own, these children are on the way to becoming a permanent underclass. The cost to society in everything from health care to prison maintenance will be dear.

Twenty years ago, when the illegitimacy rate among blacks stood at 25 percent, Senator Moynihan, then Undersecretary of Labor, tried to sound the alarm about the consequences of this situation. His plea that the federal government declare it official policy “to promote the well-being and stability of the American family” went unheeded. Instead, he was denounced as racist by many black leaders and ignored by policymakers. Today, the United States stands alone among large industrialized nations in its absence of a comprehensive family policy.

The problems of family stability and childhood poverty are so widespread now that Senator Moynihan can discuss them in “non-race-specific” terms – which is what he did last April at Harvard University, where he delivered the Godkin lectures on “Family and Nation.” At that time, he urged liberals and conservatives alike to find common ground in ways to help the American family. Last May, he embodied some of those suggestions in the Family Economic Security Act. It provides for indexing welfare payments to inflation, establishing a national benefit standard for welfare aid, giving welfare to low-income two-parent families, expanding work programs for the poor, providing tax relief, and helping states offer programs to prevent teenage pregnancy. The price tag: about eleven billion dollars.

Along the same lines, Senator Christopher Dodd of Connecticut is sponsoring the more ambitious Children’s Survival Bill, which would raise the minimum wage to four dollars an hour and increase funding for a number of child health, education, and welfare programs at a cost of approximately fourteen billion dollars. The Reagan Administration’s response to both the Moynihan and Dodd bills is that they are “too costly.”

The House Ways and Means Committee voted last August to fund two parts of the Moynihan bill: to help states establish programs to combat teen pregnancy, and to extend payments to two-parent needy families in the twenty-seven states that do not provide welfare if the family is intact. The legislation currently awaits final action by the House, and by the Republican-controlled Senate, where the chances of passage are rated slim.The debate will continue; does the government have a moral obligation to prevent children from falling into poverty, or is it not the government’s job to keep every American child above the poverty line? It is ironic that Americans have generously poured billions of dollars into other countries to help those less fortunate than themselves, at a time when one-third of our own children face the prospect of growing up poor. If the government won’t help, perhaps the more fortunate of America have to ask why, or be willing to shoulder some of the responsibility themselves.

This article is typed from the original material.  Please excuse any errors that have escaped final proofreading.

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