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Women and children last?

The first step toward meeting a need is to become aware of it. Americans are now hearing about a need that is all but unbelievable in the world's richest nation: that more and more women and children are bearing the brunt of rising poverty. If recent trends should continue, according to one report, the entire poverty population would be composed of women and their children by the end of the century. A basic factor is the increase in single-parent households headed by women, customarily in lower-paying jobs than men.

Poverty's particular burden on women and children is not unique to the United States, as was dramatized by the International Year of the Child in 1979. And efforts have been made to reduce the plight of America's poor families taking account of changes from the traditional mother-father-children unit. Just this year, as noted previously in this space, a start toward increased efficiency and coordination of federal programs was promised by a new congressional committee with responsibility for children and families.

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But the US did not stack up as well as it should have against other industrialized countries in the spotlight of the children's year. For example, unlike most of them, as cited by a US commission at the time, America did not have a program of assured health care for all children. (It still does not.) And 1 in 10 American children could count on an average of only 35 cents a day for food.

Now it appears that the prospects for American children and their mothers have actually gotten worse. This week Congressional Budget Office Director Alice Rivlin traced a sad history. First came the bright spot of the 1960s when poverty rates for children substantially declined. Then, during the '70s, there was a slight rise in the proportion of children in poverty. Finally, during the past three years, Mrs. Rivlin said, the figure has ''risen dramatically'' from 16 percent to almost 20 percent. She cited high unemployment as a major factor.

To put it another way, more than one-fourth of America's children now live in households with incomes below 125 percent of the poverty level, meaning about $9 ,000 for a family of three. Meanwhile, the budget office director reported, the federal welfare benefits to single-parent households have declined significantly.

These findings come on the heels of ''A Growing Crisis: Disadvantaged Women and Their Children,'' a report by the US Commission on Civil Rights. It points out not only the high poverty rates for families headed by women but the discrimination in employment that worsens the poverty problem for women and especially women in ethnic minorities. If President Reagan needed any further impetus for his statute-by-statute campaign for equal rights, here it is.

The commission warns of long-term damage to successive generations. The loss is not only to deprived individuals but to a deprived country, a country wasting human resources.

What has happened to the rescuer's cry of ''women and children first''? In the present time of economic trouble the combination of social change and society's response has evidently had the effect of placing women and children last.

Washington is beginning to pay attention. Much can be done by wise and coordinated use of the federal monies available. But awareness of the need can prompt all Americans to help - to see how their own attitudes and ways of life may contribute to preserving stable homes, to preventing poverty, to achieving equal rights, to saving the nation's children.

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