Any deadly bombing on American soil is shocking.
But the images from Oklahoma City that have scarred us most are those of injured babies and toddlers being carted from the gaping ruins, blood streaking down their peach-fuzzed skin.
The bombing has forced us to wonder what kind of person would deliberately perpetrate such evil against his own countrymen, much less the youngest of the young. In times such as these, passion about the well-being of our children runs high.
Remember the crowds that shouted condemnations at Susan Smith after authorities charged the young Union, S.C., mother with drowning her two young sons in a lake? Remember those who gathered at an airport to heckle a suburban Chicago couple who left their young daughters home alone while they vacationed in Acapulco for nine days in 1992?
These cases shocked our sensibilities because innocent children were involved.
But as we weep over the lost children of Oklahoma City, we overlook the telling statistics that cross my desk every few months - numbers that question our level of true commitment to American kids.
Trying to comfort the nation’s children Saturday, President Clinton assured them their schools and communities are safe; that they are beloved. If he believes that, fine, let our policies prove it. But a mountain of evidence says otherwise: In fact, there are countless ways we ignore the well-being of our children every day.
Oh sure, I care about mine; you care about yours. We clothe them and shuttle them to sports practices, clean their skinned knees and prepare them after-school snacks as they toil over homework. We hug them and hold them - especially when a tragedy such as the Oklahoma City bombing occurs.
But what about America’s children as a whole? Are their lives improving or are they a tragedy in the making - less swift than the Oklahoma City one, but just as certain?
For answers, consider a report released last month by the Children’s Defense Fund:
Gunfire killed 5,379 young people in the United States in 1992. That’s two youngsters every three hours.
About 15.7 million children - one in four - lived in poverty in 1993, the highest level in 30 years.
More than 14 million children - a record number - relied on food stamps to eat in 1993. This means children make up roughly half of all food stamp recipients, although children comprise only a quarter of the U.S. population.
One in four homeless people last year was under age 18. Contributing to this problem is the widening gap between earnings and affordable housing. In California’s metropolitan areas, for example, the average monthly rent for a twobedroom apartment in 1994 was $796 - $60 more than a minimum-wage worker’s monthly earnings.
For all the political rhetoric coming out of Congress about cracking down on welfare recipients, the truth is that approximately twothirds of all recipients are children living in dire poverty - youngsters who, like others, need shelter, a warm bed, nutritious food and a chance.
Research also tells us that one in four children in the United States lives with just one parent, which greatly increases the chances statistically of being “poor” or “very poor” by federal standards.
Then consider children’s access to safe havens such as recreation programs, libraries and afterschool activities, which diminished while parental work hours increased. Despite a historical link between a growing economy and better wages, today’s inflation-adjusted incomes have dropped while the ability to work more to counter lower real wages has reached its limit in many families. Thirty years ago, the wife might take on a part-time job. Today, if both a father AND mother already work full-time, what more can a family do?
In California, the hardships children face are just as grim:
According to the 1994 Data Book compiled by the advocacy group Children Now, only 40 percent of California youngsters actually receive courtordered child support awarded them. More than 4,170 babies died before reaching their first birthday, many for lack of sufficient prenatal care, and less than half the state’s 2-year-olds are immunized. More than 663,000 children were reported abused. And, while the dropout rate is improving, 55,000 high schoolers dropped out of California schools in 1993.
These numbers represent a challenge and a calling. And so, while we mourn Oklahoma’s dead, we must also ponder the living. Where children are concerned, there’s a lot of saving yet to be done right in our own back yards. They are awaiting amid the rubble of deteriorating priorities.
The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Diana Griego Erwin McClatchy News Service
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