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FAMILY LIFE

NBC's Chancellor Worries About Us

June 07, 1990|MIKE SPENCER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Average Americans have a luxury journalists don't possess--that of ignoring current events that might offend their sensibilities--anything from particularly ugly crimes to the plight of the homeless.

They can skip right to the comics and pretend that whatever happened simply didn't. Journalists' livelihoods, on the other hand, mandate a heartbeat-away intimacy that can prove jarring and agonizing.

A case in point is NBC news commentator John Chancellor, a longtime observer of the American scene who has written a book in what he says is "anger and frustration." The book, "Peril and Promise" (Harper & Row, $17.95), details many of the country's growing problems and offers some solutions.

What perturbs and frightens Chancellor is the apparent ease with which we ignore those problems and he wonders whether it's because we genuinely don't care or whether it's because we don't believe we have the capacity to cure them.

Either way, he warns, our locked gates and communities won't provide security much longer. As boxing great Joe Louis said of an opponent in the ring, "He can run, but he can't hide."

While Chancellor's book concentrates on international crises--foreign business competition in particular--it shows how intertwined all of our lives have become, how seemingly unrelated Orange County difficulties weigh heavily on future trading with the European Economic Community, for example.

Take education.

Chancellor points out that by the year 2000, more than one-third of all jobs in the United States will require a college degree, but "one out of four high school students today does not finish school--close to 1 million young people. And another fourth--another 1 million--who are graduated are functionally illiterate when they get their degrees."

Japan, meanwhile, graduates more than 95% of its high school students.

So, let's get these kids into college, right? Easier than it sounds, Chancellor says:

"A college education has become prohibitively expensive. The cost of tuition at public universities in the 1980s went up six times faster than family income; for private universities, the increase was nine times greater."

And, during that same period of time, government assistance was substantially cut.

"Something else that robs America of its competitiveness," Chancellor says, "is poverty. The poor are not productive and the price of poverty to the society is high."

Particularly to the children, whom we almost poetically always refer to as our future.

"Nearly 12 million children in America are officially described as living in poverty; one out of five," says Chancellor. "That's the figure for all children: It's much worse for minorities. Half of all black children live in poverty, as do 40% of all Hispanic children."

And, he says, the rate is getting worse--it grew by a full one-third during the 1980s.

"That so many children live in poverty is a disgrace," he says. "It is a moral failure of the first magnitude and a catastrophic, strategic mistake that saps our strength and endangers our national security."

As to cures, Chancellor proposes we begin with the schools and that we make them the centers of our community life. For starters, he endorses the idea of year-round schools. Not only should it have an effect on the results of classes, he says, it could even help poor children in other ways because, "in many areas, the schools provide the only hot, nourishing meals a child gets in a day."

He has other recommendations, all thoughtful and worth reading, but at the top of the list is this:

"We must, above all, learn to dream again."

And to have the kind confidence we once had that we can overcome any obstacle. In speaking of the idealism that sparked the War on Poverty in the early 1960s, former Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph A. Califano said:

"We simply could not accept poverty, ignorance and hunger as intractable, permanent features of American society."

Apparently, today, too many of us can.

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