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A Retreat on Children's Well-Being

In today's world of the new welfare law, few choose to remember that for three decades (and for good reason) Congress and successive administrations struggled to establish minimum national standards for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). The reason: to promote equal opportunity. All American children should be guaranteed the minimum benefits necessary for their growth and development.

An irony of the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 is that this successor to AFDC has finally succeeded in legislating national standards - regrettably not for minimum children's benefits, but for the mandatory removal of these benefits.

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For every parent excluded from federally funded benefits by the 1996 act, one or more children are equally deprived. This includes children of parents whose five-year lifetime eligibility runs out, children of parents who cannot or will not find work in two years, and children of teenage mothers who cannot or will not live at home.

It is one thing to punish parents for their transgressions; it is quite another to punish their innocent children. This failure to distinguish between children and their parents not only will adversely affect child poverty and health, but also will signal a major federal retreat from America's bedrock ideal of equal opportunity.

American society can ill-afford the cost of such a retreat. The ideal of equal opportunity has long provided the moral justification for our economic system - promising everyone, not equal rewards, but an equal chance to gain available rewards. The term "bedrock ideal" is apt because the principle of equal opportunity is the foundation on which our economic system can be reconciled with our other ideals of equality and democracy.

As analyzed by Peter McClellend in his remarkable book, "The American Search for Economic Justice," Americans see their system as an approximation of a fair race, where each competitor gets "to the starting line of the economic race with an equal chance to compete." Equal opportunity for children is now even part of our treaty obligations: In the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the United States recognized "the right of every child to a standard of living adequate for the child's physical, mental, spiritual, moral, and social development."

What is required to achieve equal opportunity has evolved over the course of history, as have many of our other ideals - due process and freedom of speech, for example. One might once have argued, following John Locke and some of the Founding Fathers, that a sufficient condition was the elimination of all government restrictions on who might participate in the economic race.

However, this minimalist version of equal opportunity is no longer adequate, either as a description of contemporary beliefs or as a goal. Because of our evolving views on what is required for children to develop to their full potential, we have, as a society, abolished child labor, required free public education, and progressively extended national programs to prevent all kinds of childhood deprivation. The WIC program for prenatal health, Head Start, school lunches, food stamps, and AFDC are but a few examples. Some were established as entitlements, others were not, but all were aimed at barriers to equal opportunity.

As a nation, we can't afford the probable direct costs of the Personal Responsibility Act in terms of child poverty and health. A study by the Urban Institute predicts that, nationwide, the act will force an additional 1.1 million children into poverty - a 12 percent increase.

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Further, recent findings on the impact of initial state efforts to terminate welfare benefits are ominous. A new study by the General Accounting Office (GAO) shows that in 1996, even before the provisions of the act were fully implemented, more than 18,000 families nationwide had their AFDC benefits terminated.

Any hope that the well-being of the children of these families might be protected by special state efforts is belied by a number of findings in the GAO report: Although food stamp and Medicaid benefits were not supposed to be affected, the percentage of households receiving these benefits after termination dropped precipitously. Moreover, in Iowa, the only state where efforts were made to follow up on all families whose benefits were terminated, fewer than half of the families could even be located.

THE passage of the Personal Responsibility Act has thus set the stage for a further tarnishing of America's record on equal opportunity that even now is far from our ideal. To cite only a few salient facts: In child health, the US now stands 22nd in the world in its mortality rate for children under five years old - a rate equal to Greece and Cuba, higher than any other highly developed country, and twice as high as leaders Finland and Sweden.

Also, careful cross-country comparisons reported by UNICEF show that, even before the passage of the act, the US had by far the weakest children's safety net of any developed country: In 1991, 22 percent of American children remained in poverty, even after the inclusion of government transfers. No other country had a rate exceeding 14 percent, and the leading countries had a rate one-seventh that of the US.

No one can fault the framers of the new welfare law for emphasizing the goals of work and personal responsibility for parents. But in failing to distinguish between recalcitrant parents and their innocent children, the Personal Responsibility Act will widen an already painful gap between our bedrock ideal and our actual record on equal opportunity.

The cost of this retreat, if it endures, will be measured by children's lives lost and stunted - but equally, by the embarrassed silence that someday will be our only response to the question: Where does America stand on equal opportunity?

* Guy V.G. Stevens is a Washington economist.

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