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Governors Say Investment in Children Can Curb 'Long-Term Costs' for States

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Washington--States should spend less time responding to, and more time preventing, such problems as infant mortality, childhood disease, juvenile delinquency, and school failure, the nation's governors said last week.

In a sharply worded report, the task force on children of the National Governors' Association warned that unless a greater investment is made in programs that help children grow up healthy, strong, and well educated, "the long-term costs ... are abundantly clear."

These include adult illiteracy, drug abuse, crime, teenage pregnancy, and a persisting high national dropout rate, the report says.

The report, "America in Transition: Report of the Task Force on Children," was released at press conferences here and in Little Rock, Ark. It encourages states to create more comprehensive child-development programs, with an emphasis on children up to age 5 and on young adolescents.

'Our Major Resource'

But to do so, the report notes, states first will have to overcome two major problems. One is the "disjointed, piecemeal, and crisis-oriented" nature of many state services to children, it says.

The other is the lack of a coherent national policy on children and families, which the task force claims has resulted in a "convoluted and restrictive" funding stream for children's programs.

Gov. Gerald L. Baliles of Virginia created the task force on children last summer in his role as chairman of the nga It is part of a broader initiative to improve America's economic competitiveness.

Five other task forces are looking at international education, domestic markets, foreign markets, research and technology, and the transportation infrastructure.

But nurturing the creation of a strong, vibrant workforce may be the key to improving America's economic future, argued Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, chairman of the task force on children.

"America cannot hope to compete today and tomorrow in the world economy," he said in a videotaped statement last week, "unless we do a much better job of developing our major resource--our children."

Lagging Internationally

The report notes, however, that compared with other industrialized countries, the United States lags far behind in the development of its human resources. For example:

The infant-mortality rate for white children in the United States ranks 19th among developed nations. For black children, it ranks last among 30 developed and less developed countries.

America's childhood-poverty rate is two to three times higher than that of most other industrialized nations, which typically offer more generous benefits for the poor.

The teenage-pregnancy rate in the United States is highest of 30 developed countries.

Such statistics have led many governors to raise children's issues to the top of their legislative agendas, said Raymond C. Scheppach, executive director of the nga

Approximately 35 governors emphasized the need to improve children's services in their State of the State Messages this winter, he said.

Specific Steps

The task-force report stresses the need to expand prevention efforts in seven areas.

These include the provision of com8prehensive and timely prenatal care, health care for young children to prevent diseases and disabilities, and accessible and affordable child care.

In addition, the report advocates the expansion of preschool education, stronger middle-school programs that address the special needs of young teenagers, primary health care and health education for adolescents, and volunteer-service programs and other community activities for students.

Some of the specific strategies that the governors recommend include:

Making maternity programs more accessible by simplifying the eligibility process.

Establishing a program to guarantee that all youngsters receive immunizations against the entire spectrum of childhood diseases.

Developing a system to track high-risk infants from birth, so that case managers can effectively steer them into appropriate services.

Establishing revolving-loan funds to help family day-care providers comply with health and safety standards.

Requiring local school districts to offer half-day preschool programs and coordinated child-care programs to a percentage of "at risk" 4-year-olds.

Reorganizing large middle schools into smaller, more manageable units, so that young people can gain independence while remaining in a more intimate environment.

Creating health clinics for young adults that are school-based or located near schools.

Encouraging schools to create youth-service programs within their curricula.

Mr. Scheppach admitted that it would be "tough" for states to fund new prevention programs in the immediate future, given the tight revenue situation in most states.

"The end-of-the-year balancesel15lthis year are the lowest that we've seen in the last 12 years," he said. "So there's not a lot of money out there and that's why we're talking about reallocating in the margins, rather than big spending."

But as revenues grow, he predicted, states will spend a growing portion of new monies on prevention-oriented programs.

Coherent Federal Policy

The report does not call for specific federal legislation on behalf of children. But it suggests that a new approach to federal funding is needed.

In addition to such entitlement programs as Medicaid and Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the report notes, the federal government provides money for children's services through some 73 separate, categorical programs.

Further consolidation of such programs is necessary, it suggests, "so states can better coordinate programs, reduce administrative costs, and establish priorities that accurately reflect state and local needs and prevention goals."

It also calls on the executive branch to help develop a "coherent national strategy to support families and their children."

A meeting between the governors and President Bush, focused particularly on education issues, is still "on the drawing board," Mr. Scheppach said last week.

In addition, the nga is seeking funds to provide a three-year follow-up to the task-force report.

It would include the provision of technical assistance to states and the compilation of an annual statistical report on children's well-being.

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