NBC News has aired a series on black poverty, particularly as it affects children. ABC more recently did one on poverty-stricken children of all races. Major American newspapers have written story after story on childhood poverty, and Congress has weighed in with a hefty and troubling report of its own. The results are in. No one gives a damn.
Of course, "no one" is an exaggeration since clearly the news media, organizations such as the Children's Defense Fund and scattered members of Congress do care. But "no one" fits if it refers to the Reagan administration, most of Congress and the American people. From them, childhood poverty elicits nothing but a yawn. Better to move the kids to Ethiopia. We'd hold a concert for them.
But if these kids live in St. Louis, the locale of a recent ABC report, they are out of luck. Some don't have a home -- not a house, not an apartment, not even a welfare hotel. ABC found kids who have never lived in a place they could call their own. One little girl, age 4, spends her nights in shelters with her mother and her days in the public parks.
It's hard to say whether that girl or any of the homeless children seen on television are typical of childhood poverty. What is certain is that an increasing number of kids are living in poverty and a disproportionate number of them are black. Congress has documented that these children are twice as likely as whites to die in their first year, three times as likely to be poor, four times as likely not to live with either parent and five times as likely to be on welfare. For black kids born to a single parent, the poverty rate is 85.2 percent.
For some time now, it has been apparent that an underclass, mostly black, has been developing in the United States. It is debilitated by pessimism. It is addicted to welfare. It lacks initiative and entrepreneurial skills. It seeks emotional succor in children and then does not have the independent wherewithal to raise them. It is a spawning ground for criminality, a huge consumer of municipal services, and it reciprocates by paying no taxes. Ignoring reality can be an expensive proposition.
But that, so far, is what we have managed to do. Some of the blame is yours, dear reader, but if blame is to be apportioned, yours is small. As for the media, for once it is blameless. Unlike the early 1960s, when Michael Harrington brought poverty to national attention with his book, "The Other America," the finger-pointing accusation -- "Why didn't we know that?" -- cannot be asked now of the news media. We all know -- or we should.
If there is a fundamental difference between the early 1960s and the early 1980s, it is the occupant of the White House. John F. Kennedy reacted to the Harrington book with shock and a call to action that in the Johnson administration became the War on Poverty. Ronald Reagan has reacted by going for the moral equivalent of a horseback ride. Report after report documenting a worsening plight for the poor and, especially, for black children has either been denigrated by the White House or dismissed. It is both symbolic and typical that when the Children's Defense Fund outlined the plight of poor black children last June, the White House's response was to say it had no response.
In both the lexicon and the ideology of Ronald Reagan, the individual is at the center. He is the one who is supposed to make a difference. Yet, when it comes to childhood poverty and even hunger, the president has chosen to make no difference. He has announced no program, offered no bills, appealed to no consciences. He has saved his indignation for Nicaraguans and his money for that Great Edsel in the Sky, the Strategic Defense Initiative.
A president works the national spotlight. The current one puts the light on budget deficits, the Russian bear and the now-you-see-it, now-you-don't tax reform bill. But all over the country kids are growing up deprived and angry. Only episodically does someone -- the media, Congress -- put the light on them. Most of the time, the country looks where the president does, and he, as poor kids can testify, prefers to look away.