The number of children in Alexandria who are poor, sick and undereducated is increasing, according to a new city report that urges officials not to neglect youngsters because of the focus on elderly poor people.
While the percentage of the city's population under the poverty level -- $12,000 for a family of four -- has hovered around 9 percent in recent years, according to a report by Alexandria's Office of Economic Opportunities, the number includes more youngsters and adolescents.
"It's the most pressing problem in the city," said Alexandria Mayor James P. Moran Jr. "It's directly related to the fact that we have the highest rate of teen-age pregnancy in Northern Virginia . Children are giving birth to children."
While the entire public school population has dropped to 10,183, or by 2 percent since 1982, the number of low-income and poverty-level students has risen 3 percent over the same period. Currently, one-third of Alexandria public school youths come from poverty-level and low-income families, where the average family of four earns less than $15,000.
"In the past decade, the majority of those in poverty have shifted from the elderly to children . . . . Our findings mirror increased resources which have been focused on the elderly," the report said.
The report also warned that 80 percent of the low-income students suffer from unattended medical problems, that there has been a 50 percent increase in emergency food assistance for families, and that an estimated 9,100 children need child care service.
Jack Powers, executive director of the Office of Economic Opportunities, said more and early educational programs are essential to break the cycle of poverty.
"By the time they get into kindergarten, they are already playing catch-up," he said. "It's already too late."
Citing statistics from a recent education study conducted in Ypsilanti, Mich., the report says students who receive preschool education are less likely to be arrested, drop out of school or be unemployed.
"It's to everybody's benefit to spend the money now for preschool education , instead of later," Powers said.
Moran said the city needed to immediately address the need for more child care and expanded preschool Head Start programs. "They are critical determinants for self-sufficiency," he said.
Child homelessness, abuse and neglect also are increasing, according to the study, the result of one year's research by a commission within the Office of Economic Opportunities and a survey of 200 families that was conducted from last October to January.
"It's all tied to the economy," said Jerome Harrington, acting director of the city's Youth Services division. "There's high unemployment. Tempers are short. Frustration is high."
Failure to address the needs of a growing class of impoverished youngsters, the youth director said, will have enormous ramifications for the future. "They are tomorrow's leaders," he said.
To ease the problems, the commission recommended establishing a network of community professionals to assist teen-agers, job training programs and a city housing trust fund based on state tax credits for developers assisting low-income residents, and pushing for state legislation to prohibit housing discrimination against families.