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Congress Study Details 'Precarious' Nature of Childhood

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Washington--Economic policies and demographic trends of the 1980's have left a legacy of poverty, homelessness, ill health, and family disruption for large numbers of children, a new Congressional study has charged.

Childhood has become "far more precarious and less safe for millions of America's children" during the past decade, states the study, prepared by the House Select Committee on Children, Youth, and Families and released last week.

The report, which draws on data from, among other agencies, the Census Bureau and the Department of Labor, could buttress efforts to increase federal aid for early-childhood education and child care, particularly for poor children.

Representative George Miller, the California Democrat who is chairman of the select committee, said, "The test now is whether we are motivated to act swiftly to reverse these alarming trends in the 1990's or whether we will enter the 21st century besieged by the worst effects of our failure."

Statistical Portrait

According to the report, which is the third in a series begun by the House committee in 1983, one out of every five children--including half of black children and 40 percent of Hispanic youngsters--are poor.

The report also documents that, between 1981 and 1988, the proportion of children living with both biological parents declined from 67 percent to 60 percent and that the fraction living in single-parent families grew from one-fifth to nearly one-quarter.

In addition, a home in which two parents work is the "most common family arrangement for children today," representing 42 percent of8families with children, the report states.

On the subject of educational opportunity, the report notes that, while children generally are starting school earlier than in previous decades, low-income and minority children are the least likely to receive early-childhood education.

Only 27 percent of the 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families were enrolled in school in 1986, compared with 42 percent of those from more affluent families, the report states.

Citing a "widespread concern" over what children are learning, the report notes that scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress science test have not recouped from a decline between 1969 and 1982.

While the report acknowledges that black students have made gains in naep results over the past 10 to 15 years, it also notes a continuing "gap between minority and nonminority students' achievement."

The study, "U.S. Children and Their Families: Current Conditions and Recent Trends, 1989," also reports increases over the past decade in the number of children who are homeless or living in public housing and notes that more than a million children each year experience a parental divorce.

The report also cites a decrease in the proportion of children with health insurance and an increase in reported cases of child abuse; of pediatric cases of acquired immune deficiency syndrome; and of poor health, homicides, and accidents among teenagers.

'Massive Social Experiment'

Representative Miller said the report's findings demonstrate the effects of "a massive social experiment on our children during the 1980's consisting of major changes in the economy and workforce with cutbacks in public support."

Cutbacks in child- and maternal-health programs, housing, and other social programs during the Reagan Administration, he asserted, "have severely hindered our ability to meet the enormous economic and social challenges we face."

In an accompanying minority report, however, the panel's 12 Republicans said many trends presented in the report are "neither new or dramatic" and can be linked to the dissolution of the family.

"We cannot separate what is happening to children from what is happening within their families," they concluded.

The Republicans also said they are "wary of any possible federal government action, rule, or regulation" to address family-related problems and noted that, in the area of child care, the report failed to acknowledge that roughly half of the mothers with children under age 3 provide their own child care.

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