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PERSPECTIVE ON POVERTY : Wasted Lives, Squandered Billions : Hardship is increasing across America for all generations, all groups--especially the middle class.

POVERTY IN THE AMERICA. First of four parts. Next: Programs for independence.

September 26, 1993|JONATHAN FREEDMAN | Jonathan Freedman is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist based in San Diego. His book, "From Cradle to Grave," which began as a series of columns on this page in 1990, is being published by Atheneum on Monday. and

At every stage of life's journey, Americans are falling by the wayside into poverty. Yet we have no comprehensive vision of how poverty relates to human development, no sense of how to help people make it through their lives.

In three years of interviews with children, adults and elderly people across America, I found increasing hardship among all generations, all groups--especially the middle class. In child development centers, clinics and nursing homes from Los Angeles to rural Tennessee to the East Coast, people vividly described what helps, what hurts, what works.

Success stories of effective programs that help people overcome poverty give hope that America can deal with its problems. But the journey from cradle to grave is also haunted by the toll of wasted lives and squandered billions: babies doomed before birth by drug abuse; toddlers lost in a city of 40,000 foster children; marriages forcibly split up so kids can qualify for Medicaid; workers thrown away by defense industries; elderly widows languishing on tiny pensions; comatose terminal patients hooked up to machines consuming their grandchildren's inheritance.

Thirty years ago, poverty was confined to what social critic Michael Harrington called "The Other America." Today, it encroaches on the heart of America, visible from West Los Angeles to the South Bronx.

In the 1990s, the middle class feels as vulnerable as the so-called underclass. For good reason. The basic institutions that once supported the American way of life (and nurtured the California Dream) are so overwhelmed that they no longer function effectively. Instead of helping people rise from poverty, they often drag them down.

The American family as we once knew it is a threatened, if not endangered, species. Most children born today will grow up at some period in single-parent homes; many will suffer poverty for at least three years. It is not a simple matter of failed "family values," but of accumulated tensions on family life: working parents exhausted by the demands of their jobs, or by the fear of losing work, or by the despair and humiliations of being jobless.

Following Americans on their lives' journey from conception to old age is an eye-opening experience.

* Infancy: One in 11 newborns--375,000 a year--have been exposed to illegal drugs in the womb.

* Early childhood: Five million children under age 6--one of three children in major cities--are in dire poverty. "If any outside agent ever did to our kids what we're allowing to have happen to them, we would go to war against that country," says Roberta Knowlton, who runs school counseling programs in New Jersey.

* Adolescence: Every year, 1 million teen-agers get pregnant and half of them give birth; the highest rate of increase is among white females. Suicide and homicide rates for adolescents are skyrocketing, particularly among young black males.

* Midlife: Brutal changes in our economy as America padlocks basic defense, steel and auto industries bear down heavily on people in middle age. Millions of Americans who worked hard and followed all the rules find themselves suddenly unemployed and unable to afford health care. Soaring costs and the lack of a universal, comprehensive health-care system jeopardize every age, income and ethnic group.

* Aging: Today's elderly are more secure than prior generations, thanks to entitlement programs. But 4 million to 7 million seniors are trapped in poverty, most of them women barely existing on Social Security's minimum benefit for widows. People approaching retirement age are anxious, too, about whether the Social Security system will survive, or whether it will be looted to pay off the government's bad debts.

* Dying: America spends more on Medicare for elderly patients in the final month of terminal illness than it does on Medicaid for children in the first 20 years of life. This imbalance is endangering our nation's fiscal and social health.

How can we deal with so many problems at once?

The first step is to confront our fear and helplessness and the myth that we can do nothing. The cumulative damage to crack-exposed infants, lost teens, fragmented families, jobless workers and abandoned old people is cause for anger. Not the self-righteous anger that blames, but the cry of outrage that makes it possible to shake off complacency and take practical action.

First we have to change the way we look at poverty: not as it afflicts a particular class or group, but in terms of the needs of people of all ages. Once we see the origin of the problem, and how resources have been allocated (or misspent) we can take the next step of the journey: seeking solutions.

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