THE MEDIA love a good summer scare -- as long as the horrors aren't too real. So as "The Blair Witch Project" was spooking its way onto the covers of both Time and Newsweek, a far more frightening story involving real children in real America was all but ignored by the mainstream press.
A new study by the Children's Defense Fund shows that in one year, from 1996 to 1997, the number of children living in extreme poverty -- defined as less than half of the poverty level -- rose by 26 percent among single-mother families.
Remarkably, this story was not picked up by a single major newspaper, except for the Wall Street Journal. The phony fear of three kids lost in the woods was the talk of the nation, but the all-too-real suffering of an additional 426,000 children -- bringing the total to 2.7 million -- in extreme poverty is met with a collective yawn.
This despite a flurry of reports confirming the growing plight of America's working poor: According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, among families headed by single women, the poorest fifth lost an average of $577 a year in income and benefits between 1995 and 1997.
Another Center report projected that the after-tax income gap between rich and poor will reach record levels in 1999, with the poorest fifth of Americans left with 9 percent less than they had in 1977 and the richest fifth with 43 percent more.
According to the Urban Institute, the median annual income of welfare recipients, including those with children, who left the rolls for jobs between 1995 and 1997 was $13,788. So they escaped welfare but not poverty.
And even among the middle class, according to the Economic Policy Institute, men's median earnings fell 1.8 percent over the last decade, while in 1997 the average married couple with children worked 256 additional hours a year to make ends meet.
In other words, hard economic times are not confined to the underclass. But when it comes to the Children's Defense Fund report, it would be hard to imagine a less aggressive launch.
Little criticism heard
CDF's president, Marian Wright Edelman, was not even quoted in the group's news release, nor anywhere else. And at no point was the White House faulted for celebrating slashed welfare rolls while ignoring the swelling ranks of the working poor.
Could Mrs. Edelman's friendship with the first couple be muzzling her advocacy for children?
"Now you see the signs of the transformation everywhere," the president waxed lyrical last month, three years after he signed welfare reform into law.
"Mothers collecting their mail with a little more pride because they know they'll see a bank statement, not a welfare check; children going to school with their heads held a little higher."
The Rev. Jim Wallis, who heads the Call to Renewal, a coalition to combat poverty, paints a very different picture: "The new icon of poverty," he said, "is the working mother with children. It's like the woman a colleague of mine saw at a Burger King. She was busing tables but kept going back to a table in the corner where two kids were sitting.
"She did this several times before it became apparent that she was their mother and was supervising their homework. That woman at the Burger King is supposed to be our success story."
Donna Shalala, secretary of Health and Human Services, explained that a lot of the women captured in surveys or stories simply do not know that they still can receive food stamps and Medicaid.
Even ardent supporters of the welfare bill spoke of it as only "a first step." The problem is, no second step was taken -- no call for stepped-up citizen involvement.
Civic involvement missing
Even Mrs. Edelman's husband, Peter Edelman, who resigned from the administration over the bill, believes that we have strayed too far from civic action: "Since the '60s, we got into a mind-set of passing a lot of government programs. We lost the emphasis on that part of poverty fighting that has to involve civic engagement."
But there is little hope of leading the working poor out of the woods without the floodlight national leadership can bring. And far too many of the children's advocates have slunk away for fear of offending their friends in high places.
Arianna Huffington is a syndicated columnist.
Pub Date: 9/14/99