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Preacher's Daughter Works for Poor Youngsters : Advocate for Children Pursues Parents' Values

January 12, 1986|JOAN MOWER | Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON — A preacher's daughter, Marion Wright Edelman vividly recalls the injustices she felt and saw growing up poor and black in the segregated South.

But she also remembers the values her parents pushed: working hard, getting an education, helping others. To this day, she is following their lead.

As president of the Children's Defense Fund, Edelman is a voice for the nation's children, particularly the 13 million who are poverty-stricken. Frequently they are black and live in households headed by women.

"There are certain things that are critically important to women and children and we ought to be out there pushing for those regardless of the political atmosphere," Edelman said.

Started in 1973, the children's organization has grown into a $4-million national operation with 60 staff members. There are offices in Mississippi and Ohio and state projects in Minnesota and Texas.

Organization's Goals

"Our goal is to educate the nation about the needs of children and encourage preventive investment in them before they get sick, drop out of school or get into trouble," an official of the fund said.

Its concerns include nutrition and health care for children and pregnant women, prevention of teen-age pregnancy, child care, child abuse and education.

To maintain its objectivity, the organization refuses even a penny of government money, getting it instead from foundations, corporate grants and individual donations.

"What we do today for kids is going to determine who is going to pay our Social Security in 20 years," Edelman said during an interview at the defense fund's offices in the shadow of the Capitol.

Edelman, 46, is a thin woman with a big smile who talks quickly, using the kind of verbal imagery her preacher-father might have used in his black Baptist church in Bennettsville, S.C., a town of 9,000 in the heart of the state's tobacco-growing country.

From Poor Family

The youngest of five children, Edelman's family was poor, but not as poor as many blacks eking out an existence in the days of the Depression and Jim Crow, the discrimination against Southern blacks through legalized and social restraints.

Although she described her childhood as happy, she is still appalled that black children in her town had no swimming pool, so they played in a watering hole polluted with sewage.

Among her more pleasant memories, however, is knowing that her family didn't just talk about helping others. Edelman's father started the first home for the aged--black or white--in Bennettsville, and her mother cared for foster children.

"She's always been committed," said Edelman's older sister, Olive Covington. "She felt she never had a choice."

Her liberal values, her view that government has a responsibility to care for those who are poor and disenfranchised and her strong religious beliefs reflect her heritage and her active involvement in the 1960s civil rights struggle.

Lawyers, Researchers

Under her leadership, the fund has branched out into many areas. Its legal staff initiates suits on behalf of children; its research staff churns out books, compiles statistics and provides technical help to state and local groups, and its lobbyists fight for children's programs on Capitol Hill.

Researcher Paul Smith said much of the staff's time is devoted to combatting teen-age pregnancy, particularly among black girls.

Over the years, the defense fund has scored some impressive victories, especially in the legal field. Roughly 15 lawsuits are on the books at any one time.

Because of those suits, Louisiana no longer ships handicapped foster children to Texas. Handicapped children in Mississippi are afforded full educational opportunities. And in Texas, Medicaid was stopped from reducing services, which might have harmed poor children.

Since 1981, however, the fund's most publicized battles have been over money for federal programs.

In that arena, Edelman has suffered setbacks.

Reagan Budget Cuts

With his first budget in fiscal year 1982, President Reagan managed to trim about $10 billion from programs affecting poor children, the fund said. The major chunks came out of Medicaid, Aid to Families With Dependent Children, food stamps, child nutrition programs, college aid and housing.

Those cuts slowed in the following years. "We're trying to recoup and get back to where we were in 1980," Edelman said.

For instance, the fund worked to upgrade a remedial reading program that was trimmed in 1982, and it has pushed for a pattern of changes in Medicaid, including one making it easier for pregnant mothers to get care.

But she worries about Congress' passage of the Gramm-Rudman amendment, which is intended to balance the budget with across-the-board cuts over time.

"It's like a hurricane coming through and it's uprooting the trees you've been nourishing and trying to plant and get to grow," she said, adding that children are the ones at risk.

Census Bureau figures indicate that the number of children mired in poverty has increased since 1979.

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