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Children Count? Let's Prove It

IT has always been considered a privilege to be born an American. But for increasing numbers of children in the past decade, life in the proverbial land of plenty has seemed far from privileged. Study after study documents rising rates of child poverty, teenage pregnancy, and single-parent families.

The latest evidence that conditions have not improved for many American children comes from the third annual "report card" issued by the Center for the Study of Social Policy in Washington, D.C., and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

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The study, called "Kids Count," measures such indicators as birth weight, juvenile arrests, violent teen deaths, births to unmarried teens, and poverty. Although the report notes that millions of American children thrive, it shows, state by state, ways in which others do not. One child in 5 is poor. In 33 states, where 82 percent of American children live, the condition of children worsened during the 1980s on more than half of the study's nine measures of well-being. Only in two areas - infant mortality

and child deaths - was progress found.

"Parents strive to provide the right start in life for their children," the study says. "But today families earn less, work more, have less time [and] fewer support systems, and lead more stressful lives."

The study suggests the need to reform policies governing wages, taxes, and welfare benefits. It calls for new leave policies, child-care systems, and workplace practices to ensure that children of working parents receive adequate nurturing.

Researchers can make recommendations, but policy changes must come from leaders in business and government. It has been fashionable for political candidates to make whistle-stops at child-care centers, professing interest in the well-being of families. But as these latest statistics show, that concern about the next generation often appears to end after the ballots are counted.

Already "family values" has become an buzzword in the presidential campaign. The urgent question hanging over the 1992 election is: Will this finally be the year candidates prove they mean it when they say, "children count"?

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