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Raising Children's Issues


For President Bush, "the vision thing" never came naturally. Even so, his administration has not been shy about setting goals for the health and education of the nation's children.

But if vision means not just setting goals but also working seriously to achieve them, the Bush administration still comes up woefully short. In 1990, the administration adopted goals for the year 2000 in regard to the health and education of U.S. children. So far, there is precious little progress to report.

It doesn't have to be that way, and a coalition of groups concerned about children's issues is determined to take advantage of the presidential election to draw attention to issues that have everything to do with the future of the country. If enough voters pay attention, then presidents and presidential hopefuls will too.

There is no lack of issues. With an infant mortality rate of 10.1 per 1,000 live births, the United States is tied with New Zealand and Israel for 21st place. Japan has the world's lowest rate. Singapore, Hong Kong, Canada and most European countries all do better than we do in this key indicator of a nation's quality of life.

The goal for the year 2000 is to bring the U.S. rate down by almost one-third, to 7 deaths in the first year of life for every 1,000 live births. At current rankings that would put us in a tie with Singapore for sixth place -- an improvement, but certainly good enough for this country.

In Maryland, the picture is even more bleak. The state ranks 47th in the country in infant mortality. In 1988, 47 percent of the babies born to Medicaid mothers were born prematurely or at weights low enough to cause complications. Many of these mothers were teen-agers who received no prenatal care in the crucial first trimester of pregnancy. Some of them got no medical care at all until they showed up at an emergency room with labor pains.

Health care is not the only crisis area for children. The education goals set in 1990 are as far away as ever from becoming reality.

To cite only one of those ambitious goals, what actions has the "education president" taken to help schools across the country become "free of drugs and violence and offer a disciplined environment conducive to learning"?

If anything, tax revolts, economic pressures and social trends have combined to make it even more difficult for resource-starved schools to offer students the kind of environment that encourages learning.

In regard to health, any national efforts that aim to reduce the infant mortality rate have gotten little attention and few resources, despite the fact that the administration has cited a reduction in these statistics as a major goal.

George Bush has had three years in office, so he bears a special responsibility to address these issues. But the burden now falls on other candidates, who are also obligated to spell out their vision for America -- and exactly how they would fulfill it.

A number of presidential candidates are eager to promise tax cuts to Americans, but who among them has bothered to tell voters what they would do in their first year in office to ensure that the goals for improving the health and education of American youth are met by the end of the decade?

What specific actions would they take to give poor families a better chance to lift themselves out of poverty?

How would they address the global issues that affect children in this country and around the world?

Clearly, the future of American children will be affected by the fate of children growing up in other parts of the world. Would the candidates revamp U.S. foreign assistance programs to address the threat to national security posed by the environmental crisis and by 1 billion restless people living in desperate poverty?

With Maryland's primary only nine days away, local groups are hoping to take advantage of the candidates' presence here to ask some of these important questions. But that's hard to do. One attempt to bring candidates together at the University of Maryland School of Law this coming week to discuss children's issues got such a lukewarm reception from campaign managers that the event was canceled.

When it comes to children, it seems that the gap between rhetoric and reality, between setting goals and taking them seriously, is especially wide. Maybe that's because children don't vote.

But children do grow up, and unless national leaders begin to take their needs more seriously the country will pay a steep price, in crime statistics and social unrest as well as in our competitive standing in the world economy.

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