Normally when I hear about the establishment of yet another committee in Congress, I think, "Oh well," and don't expect much. But when I heard about the new House Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families, I scotched my usual skepticism. With Reagan administration cuts and the economy disrupting family stability anound the country, I felt it was important, even urgent, to focus on families.
The family is in such transition and under such pressure that it needs a champion. Millions of children live in families in which the breadwinner doesn't have a job, and in many cases those breadwinners are women. There were a million divorces last year and another million expected this year.
For that one-quarter of American children who live in or near poverty, added problems occur. Nutrition programs have been cut back, and many have been pushed off welfare as federal spending declines.
So there was reason to welcome the persistent efforts of Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) that resulted in this new committee. "I'd like to hold up a mirror for Congress to see the American family," says Miller.
But if the committee's first hearing and early staff hiring is any indication, the mirror is somewhat distorted and the image Congress sees won't be a true reflection. It's missing an important element--adequate inclusion of blacks and other minorities.
The committee heard from a blue-ribbon panel of noted professionals, including Dr. Armand Nicholi of Harvard Medical School and Dr. Harold Richman of the University of Chicago. But the only expert black voice the committee heard belonged to controversial black economist Dr. Walter Williams, whose advocacy of a sub-minimum wage for youth has made him a pariah among many blacks. Williams' controversial testimony that black infant mortality and out-of-wedlock births were related more to promiscuity than the effects of discrimination might have gone unchallenged had it not been for the spirited rebuttal of Rep. Mickey Leland (D-Tex.).
In its initial hiring of senior staff, no minority was brought on board to work in a senior position. The committee has made a shaky but promising start by hiring one minority professional who starts to work next week, but that number should be increased and the committee also should seek the advice of black professionals as well as the input of black families in order to understand the whole picture. Since minorities are disproportionately affected by many of the family problems created by the economy, it's terribly important to adequately reflect a mix of perspectives.
The select committee cannot approve legislation, but through hearings, reports and keeping the issues before Congress and the people, it can bring problems into the limelight and affect debate in much the same way Rep. Claude Pepper (D-Fla.) has used his Select Committee on Aging to focus dramatically on the nation's elderly.
At Thursday's hearing, Bruce Chapman, director of the Census Bureau, made clear the special stake that minority families have in the committee's functions. In l980, the divorce rate for whites was 14 percent and for blacks, 37 percent. And in that same year, the number of black families maintained by women was 40 percent as opposed to 12 percent for whites.
Since blacks suffer unemployment twice as high as whites--with teen-age joblessness reaching 70 percent in some communities, according to the National Urban League--family instability is also greater. Virginia Gov. Charles Robb recently noted that a black child born this year stands a 50 percent chance of being underemployed, undereducated and impoverished when he reaches the age of 18.
These problems must be addressed. I would hope that at future hearings, there will be a greater mix of experts and ideas, and that the make-up of last week's panel is not reflective of how this important committee is going to operate. I hope that this committee is going to get its teeth into real issues and not hover up in the clouds of demographics. I hope, too, that the staff is going to be truly representative so that we can approach these serious and stressful concerns with the sensitivity that is needed.