The largest single group of poor Americans is children--a tragedy new to this country, a mean way of life for one out of every four youngsters.
The majority of poor children live with one parent, their mother. That family situation, once epidemic only in black households, has spread. During the past decade the percentage of single-parent families doubled among white and black families. Out-of-wedlock births also rose. Every day more children learn how to do without.
Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.), reviewing the grim statistics, renewed his appeal last week for a national family policy--an appeal that he first made 20 years ago after assessing the increasing instability of black families. He was called a racist then, but time has proved him correct.
American families are in crisis, Moynihan pointed out during lectures at Harvard University. The causes are complex--an explosion in teen-age pregnancies, unemployment, declining school achievement, a rise in chronic illness, crime and imprisonment, discrimination and, ironically, increasing employment opportunities for women have contributed to more single-parent homes.
Three-quarters of the American poor are women and children, yet the Reagan Administration, whose rhetoric celebrates family values, has responded with budget cuts for that group.
No government should have to solve all of society's ills. Responsibility starts with individuals. But behavior is hard to explain, and harder to change. And when, for example, millions of men refuse to assume responsibility for their children, no government should hesitate to help.
Moynihan would change federal tax policies to benefit families with children, reshape welfare programs that are as supportive of poor children as the entitlements for the elderly, expand job-training programs and make birth-control information more readily available.
Moynihan points out, for example, that raising a child costs far more today than it did in 1948, when the income-tax exemption for wives and children was set at $600. The exemption has risen to $1,000, but Moynihan notes that had it been indexed for income growth it would be $5,600, or, for inflation, about $2,500. Moves toward tax reform provide an opportunity to correct that problem.
Because tax changes would not help welfare families, Moynihan proposes a national standard for welfare payments, indexed against price inflation--as are benefits for veterans, the elderly, the disabled and the retired. Moynihan notes that children under age 14 are six times as likely to be poor as are elderly pensioners. A caring nation can provide for both, without pitting one against the other.
Attacking welfare dependency will not make it go away. That will happen only with creating programs such as one that provided jobs, training and special supervision in which older welfare mothers, ages 36 to 44, with no previous work experience and the longest welfare histories made the most progress.
Not every child born to a single woman is born to a life of poverty. Some who are will beat any odds, particularly with the help of a good school. But most need help to avoid a childhood of misery.
The number of poor children rose during the first Reagan term--a fact that was barely reflected at the polls, in part because only one voter in three lives with a child. If the current trends are allowed to continue, more Americans will discover the truth in Moynihan's message that poverty does not fall only onto other people and their children.