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A Policy to Stunt the Future


Washington. -- Americans are at each other's throats these days because some politicians are telling them that these are the worst of times.

We are encouraged to blame those who do not look like us or think like us for all our grievances.

I got a bit of relief from this orgy of self-pity and scapegoating Wednesday when I read a Wall Street Journal article comparing family life in America now with what it was in 1974.

I saw a mixed bag of change that showed us enjoying many creature comforts at reduced prices, yet paying more for some of the essentials of civilized life.

And I saw compelling evidence that the politicians who are provoking the hysterical scapegoating are not promoting any legislation or programs that will guarantee that our social and economic status will be any better 20 years from now.

The Journal article showed that when changes in the average hourly wage (from $5.10 in 1974 to $15.88 in 1994) are factored in, it costs you less now to buy a chicken, a gallon of gasoline, a TV set, or a movie, train or airline ticket. But it costs you a lot more to get sick, have a baby, or buy a new car or a new house.

The 20-year change in the cost of creature comforts is a mixed bag.

My point -- not that of the Journal article -- is that the greatest and most ominous developments in American life involve changes in social and sexual mores, and the stratification of classes, the racial divisions and the distribution of income.

The percentage of children living with a parent who never married grew from 1.5 percent (986,000) in 1974 to 9.6 percent (6,258,000) in 1993.

There is nothing in Newt Gingrich's "Contract with America" or anything else proposed by the 104th Congress that offers the early intervention in the lives of these disadvantaged children that will positively affect the quality of American life by the year 2015.

The 20-year growth of the number of children 18 and under actually living in poverty is even more disturbing. The Journal notes that it rose from 15.4 percent (10,156,000) in 1974 to 22.7 percent (15,727,000) in 1993.

When almost 16 million children are in dire need, scorned and hated by the political establishment, what kind of fool can expect that American life will be better 20 years from now than it is today? We will have, for the next generation and beyond, a guaranteed oversupply of family heads who will have been alienated and angered by the circumstances of their young lives.

I repeat that the people who now control the 104th Congress have no program other than to curse, punish and further alienate those children who live at the most painful margins of American life.

We allowed the number of children living in poverty to increase by more than 55 percent in the last 20 years. Which politicians in any party are pondering the consequences of such an increase in child deprivation over the next generation? Which politicians are doing anything positive to prevent such a social calamity?

We are a people who managed to reduce deaths from motor vehicle accidents from 46,402 in 1974 to 40,880 in 1993, yet we allow deaths by firearms to increase from 33,056 to 40,230 in the same period.

Something is seriously wrong with our political leadership. And no less wrong with us as a people.

Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.

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