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A New Year’s Wish

The New Year would have rung more cheerily for some of us if it had tolled the end of a decade when the United States cared less than Bangladesh about improving the lot of its children.

Generations will, of course, pile upon generations before many babies born to Bangladesh can be as lucky as most babies born to us. And yet Bangladesh tries to help its children with efforts necessarily modest but with a zeal that seems almost heroic beside our own languors.

What, after all, ought more to diminish the pride of any advanced civilization than the reflection that Bangladesh has immunized 63 percent of its children against diphtheria and that we have done the same for only 58 percent of our own? A nation that we think of as hopeless struggles to make life a little better; and the nation that is the repository of our hopes indifferently watches it get worse for millions of our helpless own.

The US Department of Labor fixes $11,182 a year as the income a family of three needs to exist in minimal comfort. A dollar short of that level is officially defined as the condition of poverty. By 1990 there were four million more of our children whose families were thus identifiably poor than there had been in 1980, and their class has grown to represent one of every five Americans under eighteen.

Every year the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) studies the social progress of 173 countries rich and poor. Its indices include life expectancy, adult literacy, and per capita gross national income. In 1990 the United States ranked sixth after Japan, Canada, Norway, Switzerland, and Sweden. And yet white America would have been Number One on the UNDP index if black America’s rank hadn’t been down below Hungary’s and Latino America’s even further down with Estonia’s. The highest point on UNDP’s human development scale belongs not to the Japanese but to white American women, while black American men sit lower than Mexicans and Russians.

This harsh comparison ought not to obscure the fact that more than 60 percent of our certifiably impoverished citizens happen to be white. Still it is more comforting to think of the poor as not worth serious attention if they can be dismissed as merely the black poor. Thus we have managed to convince ourselves that, since the poor are undeserving, they aren’t entitled even to the paltry dole they get; and all serious discussion about welfare reform is reduced to measures not to salvage lives but to squeeze for pennies.

Actually welfare reform has been progressing without pity for the last ten years and to degrees that would disgust the most case-hardened beadle in the old English Poor Law establishment. In the year ending in September 1991, 8.5 million children drew their sustenance from the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program. Their monthly grants are 42 percent lower than they were in real-dollar values in 1972. Even that triumph failed to warm the chill of the official heart; and in 1992 Michigan reduced its monthly AFDC grant for a family of three from $526 to $459.

These are the children we have declared an enemy, to be decried by the politicians and growled at by the citizens of the country with the lowest tax rate on its gross national income anywhere in the industrialized world except Japan. The revenues of the top 20 percent of us are 3.55 times the incomes of the lower 40 percent; our homicide rate is twice Bulgaria’s; and the 426 of every 100,000 Americans who are in prison doubles Poland’s proportion and is Hungary’s three times over.

A black child born in America runs just about the risk of dying in less than five years that he would face if he were born black or white in Cuba. If equity is any standard for performance, we are well rid of 1993 and would soundly prepare for the present one if we got down on our knees and prayed to bring more grace and mercy to it.

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