A black child in America today has nearly one chance in two of being born into poverty, and is twice as likely as a white baby to die during the first year of life.
If the black child survives that first year, the odds are against his growimg up healthy, wealthy or wise. Black children are more likely to be sick and without a regular source of health care. They are three times as likely to be labeled mentally retarded, twice as likely to drop out of school before 12th grade and three times as likely to be unemployed. A black teen-ager has a one in 10 chance of getting into trouble with the law and is five times as likely as a white teen-ager to be murdered.
This bleak portrait, based largely on government surveys drawn together in one report, was presented yesterday by the Children's Defense Fund, a Washington-based lobbying and advocacy group for children.
The statistics "show why millions of black children lack self-confidence, feel discouragement, despair, numbness or rage as they try to grow up on islands of poverty, ill health, inadequate education, squalid streets with dilapidated housing, crime and rampant unemployment in a nation of boastful affluence," said the fund's president, Mariam Wright Edelman.
There is passing acknowledgment in the report that the last two decades have been years of progress for some blacks. Because of affirmative action programs, government scholarships and court-mandated desegregation, about one third of all black children who graduate from high school go on to college, about the same proportion as among white youths. But, Edelman contended, if the black middle class has grown, the black poor have expanded at even a faster rate.
In a televised address 17 years ago, President John F. Kennedy drew attention in similar fashion to the inequality of opportunity for black children. He said in that speech on June 11, 1963:
"The Negro baby born in America today . . . has about one-half as much chance of completing high school as a white baby born in the same place on the same day, one-third as much chance of completing college, one-third as much chance of becoming a professional man, twice as much chance of becoming unemployed, about one-seventh as much chance of earning $10,000 a year, a life expectancy which is seven years shorter, and the prospects of earning only half as much."
The change between now and then is not as great as one might expect. Dropout rates for black youths are twice as high as for white teen-agers, the black child now has half as much chance of finishing college and becoming a professional person as the white child, still twice as much chance of being unemployed as an adult and a life expectancy that is now five years shorter.
After a spurt of progress in the late 1960s, ghains made in lifting black children out of poverty leveled off. The decade of the '70s produced far more progress for the elderly than it did for black children, according to the statistics the fund cited.
Clearly, the economic ravages of the last decade have had a particularly devastating impact on the black poor. Income for black households, adjusted for inflation, declined. In the '60s, the unemployment rate for black youth was twice as high as for white teen-agers. Today, it is three times as high.
And the family structure of blacks appears to have been under even greater assault. Four of five white children live in two-parent families, fewer than half of all black children do. Only one white child in 38 lives away from both parents, one in eight black children does.Proportionally, there are far more black children born to teen-aged mothers, far more black children in institutions.
Social programs of the '60s, such as Head Start, aimed largely at black youth, appear to have brought some gains in education amd nutrition, according to the fund, but thousands of children eligible for them are still not served, and black children appear to suffer in school as they grow older.
Suspension rates for both black and white children have increased, and black children are suspended at twice the rate of white children. Black elementary and high school pupils are put into programs for the mentally retarded at more than three times the rate for white children. For every two black children who graduate from high school, one drops out.
The health problems of black children begin even before birth as black women rceive less prenatal care -- and receive it later in their pregnancies -- than white women. And black children are far less likely to get basoc immunization against polio, measles and diptheria than white children, less likely to make regular visits to a doctor and far more likely to get ill.
The release of the report yesterday appeared deliberately timed to coimcide with the impending debate in this city over cutting social programs. Many of the programs aimed at poor children such as Head Start, maternal and child health care and vocational education expire soon and Congress is to consider whether they should be extended.
Edelman and the Children's Defense Fund are staunch in their belief that they should, and a great deal of the report yesterday was devoted to what was termed "an action agenda" aimed not only at the preservation of the programs but at monitoring them to see that they worked. She had criticism and admonishments not only for those prepared to swing the budget-cutting axe but for many in the new sprung black middle class of a mind to sit this battle out.
"We are not out of the woods because some of us have two cars, a big mortgage and several charge accounts," she told them. "Any black person who thinks this way is courting danger and jeopardizing our children's future."