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Mayors' Status Report Tallies Children's Issues

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Washington--Substance abuse, weaknesses in the education system, and a lack of affordable child care are the three most critical problems facing children in the nation's cities, according to a new poll of 52 city mayors.

And in four out of every five of the cities surveyed, mayors believe that the problems that children are facing in each of these areas have worsened over the past five years.

"The number of futures compromised by our collective inability to solve these problems truly seems to be increasing," said Ted Mann, Mayor of Newton, Mass., at a press conference held last week in conjunction with the report's release.

"We appear to be losing this battle," added Mr. Mann, who is chairman of the committee on human development of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which conducted the survey.

The survey, "A Status Report on Children in America's Cities," portrays what Mr. Mann called "a very disturbing picture of an accumulation of very serious problems that affect all children, especially low-income children."

The survey's findings represent "nothing new," he acknowledged, but instead are intended to convey a message from city leaders to the next President that a nationwide effort is needed to address the problems that urban children face.

While both Presidential candidates have announced support for such an effort, Mr. Mann said, "we need to hear a commitment of dollars."

"We need to hear," he added, "that they are willing to make the enormous investment that the problems demand, and that the children deserve."

'Court of Last Hope'

Both the new report and speakers at last week's press conference made references to recent reports by groups such as the Committee for Economic Development and the Children's Defense Fund, which have helped focus public attention on the problems fac8ing the cities' young.

A significant number of mayors have joined the national discussion on children's issues and have moved these concerns to the top of their political agendas. (See Education Week, Oct. 26, 1988.)

The survey demonstrates that this trend has become widespread.

Mayors in 24 of the 52 cities, for example, discussed children's issues in their most recent "state-of-the-city" addresses.

And more than half of the cities have a citizen's task force, commission, or other public body specificalel10lly charged with overseeing children's issues, broadly defined.

"You may not think of the Conference of Mayors as an advocate for children," said Mayor Mann, "but we are the court of last hope, the court of final resort" for needy children.

"We are nearly the sole source of support for those who aren't making it," he added.

The report documents dozens of city-led efforts, sometimes in collaboration with school systems, to address the problems faced by urban children.

"We're very proud of what we've been doing," said Judith Walker, commissioner of human services in Chicago, "but we can only do a little bit compared to what's needed."

Mayors Cite School Problems

Although intended primarily as a lobbying instrument, the survey also offers the first look at contemporary children's issues from the perspective of the nation's mayors.

The issues examined by the survey, including early-childhood edu4cation, day care, teenage pregnancies, infant health, and housing, are also concerns that many school systems find themselves forced to address, in order to facilitate their primary educational mission.

But the survey suggests that many mayors are dissatisfied with the quality of their school systems--over which they typically have little control--and see school problems as a major obstacle to children's success.

Substance abuse was most frequently identified by survey respondents as posing critical problems for both low-income children and all urban children.

At the same time, weaknesses in the educational system and the lack of affordable child care were identified as the second and third most critical problems facing all children in the 52 cities.

But when asked about the problems facing low-income children in particular, more cities cited a lack of affordable child care, rather than education, as a major difficulty.

'Causing an Irreparable Gash'

Several of the cities added written comments that noted the severity of other problems on children.

In Alexandria, Va., for instance, officials listed the educational disparity between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils, the drug trade's financial incentives for low-income children, and the lack of employable skills among many low-income youths leaving high schools as the three most pressing problems facing children in their city.

"These three problems are causing an irreparable gash on the generation of young people we will rely on to sustain our economic growth and provide for our retirement years," the Alexandria officials wrote.

City officials in Rochester, N.Y., noted that educating the growing number of socially and economically disadvantaged young people "has become increasingly difficult and costly ... and has resulted in increasing tax burdens for both businesses and residents."

"To the extent that these burdens make us uncompetitive with other jurisdictions and areas," they added, "the number of employment and affordable housing opportunities will diminish and the underclass problems will be exacerbated."

Alexandria and Rochester were among the 12 cities that listed education as a critical problem for their city as a whole, not just their children. The others were: Buffalo; Chicago; Hampton, Va.; Houston; Irvine, Calif.; Jersey City; Kansas City, Mo.; New York City; Phoenix; and San Antonio.

Education was edged out as the most frequently mentioned concern by the lack of affordable housing, which was listed as a critical problem in 21 cities, and by drugs and/or crime, which were cited in 20 cities.

New Dropout Data

One of the most valuable contributions of the survey was its attempt to report high-school dropout rates in the 52 cities in a manner that would allow for comparisons between cities.

The Mayors' Conference overcame the difficulty posed by the wide disparities in the methods school systems use to calculate dropout rates by asking cities to provide enrollment data for each of the high-school years of the class of 1988.

By subtracting the number of students who graduated in the spring of 1988 from the number of 9th graders enrolled in the fall of 1984, the report's authors were able to provide a rough measure of the dropout problem. They acknowledged, however, that their statistic does not take into account such factors as student migration.

Using this measure, cities with a four-year dropout rate of 50 percent or more included: Boston; Camden, N.J.; Dallas; Jersey City; Kansas City; Norfolk, Va.; San Antonio, and Trenton.

Cities reporting a four-year dropout rate below 20 percent included: Alexandria; Cambridge, Mass.; Hampton, Va.; Lincoln, Neb.; Redmond, Wash.; and Santa Barbara, Calif.

On average, 38 percent of the students who were enrolled in the 9th grade in 1984 did not graduate from the city school systems in 1988.

Other Findings

Among the survey's other findings:

More than 60 percent of the cities reported that they invest public funds in programs that encourage students to stay in school.

Between 1979 and 1986, the percentage of children living in poverty in the 52 cities was estimated to have grown from 25.3 percent to 29.4 percent.

Day-care slots are available for an average of 37 percent of the children under the age of 6 in each city.

Half of the cities reported that their public schools offer some preschool opportunites for 4-year-olds, while 11 cities reported no public-school involvement in these programs.

Teenage mothers gave birth to 14.6 percent of the babies born in these cities during 1986; nearly three-fourths of the teenage mothers were unmarried.

The speakers at the press conference stressed that cities cannot afford to tackle this "national problem" without additional assistance from the federal and state governments, as well as from businesses and community groups.

"Property taxes are an insufficient, inadequate, and inappropriate means to deal with the profusion of problems in every urban area in the United States," said James Moran, mayor of Alexandria.

The Conference of Mayors argued in a report released earlier this month that public services and the quality of life in cities would be significantly improved if the federal government shifted $150 billion from the defense budget to urban programs over a five-year period.

City leaders said in the new survey that the most important policy decisions that the next President could make for the benefit of children would be to: increase the availability of child care, provide adequate funding for existing family and children's programs, increase the emphasis on and support for substance-abuse prevention, and make a greater investment in education.

Copies of "A Status Report on Children in America's Cities" may be obtained for $10 each by writing Elynor Humber, U.S. Conference of Mayors, 1620 I St., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20006, or by calling (202) 293-7330.

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