GOVERNMENT: Do you like children?''
That's the pointed question a 10-year-old Californian named Cynthia would like to ask gubernatorial candidates in her state.
It's also the question growing numbers of child advocates are asking politicians across the country this year. Concerned about the declining well-being of American children, they are pressing candidates to be explicit about their position on issues affecting children, including crime, education, health care, and safety.
``We're seeing a great increase in the number of people actively involved in children's issues around the campaign cycle,'' says Lisa Tate, chair of the Coalition for America's Children in Washington, D.C. ``This is not something we saw four years ago. They're also becoming much more sophisticated in their use of political techniques, such as get-out-the-vote campaigns and voter registration drives at places where parents are likely to vote.''
One of the most active of these campaigns is taking place in Arizona. ``Children have become a major political issue here this election season, far more than in the past,'' says Carol Kamin, executive director of Children's Action Alliance in Phoenix.
She attributes some of this heightened interest to the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Eddie Basha, who is emphasizing the need to invest in children. Last week, half of an hour-long gubernatorial debate focused on education and children's issues, she says.
Ms. Kamin also credits the Arizona Republic, the state's largest newspaper, for an ongoing series, ``Saving Arizona's Children,'' which for several years has dealt with education, policy issues, and programs for young people. In June, Gov. J. Fife Symington III even called a special session of the legislature to deal with a children's bill called ``Success by Six.''
In Florida, Jack Levine, executive director of the Florida Center for Children and Youth in Tallahassee, sees ``a very healthy political debate'' on issues such as crime, prevention services for children, and the role of government as it relates to family rights.
``We've been here for 20 years, hoping for a time when the facts of life for kids and families would get attended to,'' he says. ``In the closing couple weeks of this campaign, this is what people are talking about.''
Some candidates, Mr. Levine explains, are devoting their entire crime agenda to ``what to do with today's criminals. They are saying, in effect, `Let's put the prison budget on steroids and starve everything else.' Other candidates present convincing evidence that tomorrow's crime problem is preventable with smart education and family-service programs.''
This year marks the second election cycle for Florida's children's campaign. For six months, more than 7,000 volunteers have been knocking on voters' doors, distributing brochures, and attending business club meetings and candidates' forums.
Not all advocates have reason for optimism. In California, staff members at Children Now, a nonpartisan policy group in Sacramento, lament the lack of serious debate on substantive issues.
``We're finding some response by the media and the candidates,'' says Lois Salisbury, executive director. ``But if you talk about the overall tone of the election, this is an election season when issues are not being debated, and children's issues least of all.''
Summing up childrens' needs, Ms. Salisbury says: ``Let's invest in kids up front with health care, with good schools, with stable economics for families. The more we do it right in the first place, the more rewarded we will be with productive citizens and workers and the less we'll be paying to try to clean it up afterwards.''
Less than 2 percent of the bills introduced by the state legislature in 1994 are directed to problems concerning children, according to researchers at Children Now. They note that more bills have been introduced to protect animals than to help abused children.
As part of its ``Vote for Kids '94'' campaign, the organization surveyed more than 2,000 California children. Among them was Cynthia, the 10-year-old who wanted to know if government likes children. Nearly 40 percent said they worry about violence. Next on their list of concerns was education, followed by immigration.
``The remarkable thing is how much we find that children's own intuitive analysis reflects what hard policy analysis tells us are the real issues facing kids,'' says Ms. Salisbury.
Beyond questioning candidates, advocates face a second task: educating voters. ``We're up against a knowledge gap between what the public wants to see done on children's issues and how familiar they are with their own member's record,'' says Susan Bales, who is on the executive committee of the Coalition for America's Children.
To educate voters, the coalition has published a ``Children's Advocates Campaign Strategy Book.'' It also distributes a mock ballot reminding voters to think about ``Who's for kids - and who's just kidding.''
Elsewhere, a new nonpartisan group in Birmingham, Ala., Voices for Alabama's Children, has produced a pamphlet, ``Question the Candidates,'' which includes statistics about the state's children.
``Without information like this, people say, `Oh yes, poor little children,' but not much happens,'' says Connie Wagnon, executive director. ``But when they read this grim data on the condition of children, people are more likely to step up to the line and work to make a difference.''