May 18 1996

Cherishing Kids…While Neglecting Them

Americans of all ages will gather at the Lincoln Memorial on June 1 for an event called “Stand For Children.” Organizers are promising “the largest and most uplifting demonstration of family, community and spiritual commitment to children in American history.” One likely result: a media focus on kids next month.

We sure need a change. Usually, national attention lurches from one sensational horror story to another. Young people complain that they only seem newsworthy if they do something awful. When lurid accounts of youthful crimes hit the front pages and evening news, glib moralizers swing into action — demanding that authorities crack down on youngsters.

Blaming kids for social ills is quite convenient but hardly fair. As James Baldwin observed a third of a century ago, “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” Juvenile acts of violence mirror the values and behavior that prevail in adult society.

We’re fascinated by stories about children who harm infants. But, for every such incident, thousands of babies die because of societal neglect; in some U.S. cities, the infant mortality rate rivals Third World statistics. One tragedy involving a child can get mega-publicity, but widespread threats to children are apt to sound abstract: inadequate health care, nutrition, housing, education.

If an individual brutalizes a child, the crime scene can be dusted for fingerprints, and mug shots may reach millions of TV viewers. But no fingerprints are available when the social order routinely brutalizes children. There are no mug shots of the severe inequities that mean early death for large numbers of children born into poverty.

While decrying individual acts of violence, we should also challenge the institutional violence that greets many newborns and remains part of the landscape during adolescence.

From the beginning, better social programs would make a vital difference for multitudes of children in the United States. “Every two minutes, a baby is born at low birth weight,” Stand For Children literature points out. “Every three minutes, a baby is born to a mother who received late or no prenatal care.” The U.S.A. leads the world in military expenditures but ranks 18th in preventing infant mortality.

Improving such figures has yet to become a national priority. So, it’s somehow fitting that the June 1 event was initiated by Marian Wright Edelman, the Children’s Defense Fund leader whose friendship with Bill and Hillary Clinton goes way back.

For a long time, Edelman declined to publicly confront President Clinton as he opted for federal budget cuts at the expense of America’s poor and working-class children. Last year, she finally spoke out against the administration’s priorities.

However, much of the press still seems entranced by noble oratory about children. Many reporters and pundits fondly recall the November 1993 speech that Clinton delivered from the Memphis pulpit where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his last sermon. The president lamented a “great crisis of the spirit” and chastised young blacks for violent crime.

Keenly aware that those themes play well with news media, Clinton is now eager to reprise his Memphis triumph. On May 10, at a college commencement, he blasted young lawbreakers and called for a million anti-crime volunteers. Three days later, at the White House, he repeatedly denounced “youth violence.”

But Mike Males, author of a new book titled “The Scapegoat Generation,” argues persuasively that today’s political cliches about youth and crime are just plain wrong. “Clinton’s rhetoric on protecting kids from violence goes strangely silent when the assailants are adults,” Males told me. “Even though a 1995 U.S. Department of Justice report found that three-fourths of all murdered children and youths were slain by adults — not by other `children’ — the administration has never issued a major policy statement on child abuse or the epidemic of adult violence against the young.”

Males emphasizes that the key factor behind crime is poverty. “While most impoverished people are not violent, there is no question among criminologists that the stresses of poverty are associated with much higher violent crime levels among all races and ages.”

Stand For Children has an appropriate motto: “A day of commitment to leave no child behind.” But a single event cannot reverse our society’s neglect of so many young people.

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