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Statistics on children offer sad look at our failures

Thou art my child, I love thee best, but could not love thee half as much, love I not all the rest. If you measure the love you have for your own by that which you're willing to do for kids you've never met, then the love you have for your own will be whole. _ Jack Levine, executive director,

Florida Center for Youth & Children

Jack Levine is not a minister. Those are about the only "thees" and "thous" you'll hear him utter in any of his speeches.

But he is a preacher. He is witness to the suffering of children at the hands of politicians who either didn't know or didn't care how much they were hurting this country.

That political neglect is the reason so many caring people in Pasco and Hernando counties are out there today begging people to vote for something called a Children's Services Council. By and large they are people who can well afford to take care of their own, but they have seen the awful effects of our society's failure to ensure that babies are healthy. They have seen state and federal revenue sources dry up and know that if local families are going to get help, it's going to take local advocates and money.

They believe the "pay now or pay more later" argument. But most of all, they know that Levine is right when he says the only place children do not have to wait for a needed service is the morgue.

As much as I like this man from Tallahassee who has two children the age of mine, speeches such as the one he gave at the west campus of Pasco-Hernando Community College last week leave me depressed. After 12 years with the non-profit children's center, he knows the awful truth. Maybe you have to get real depressed before you get real angry. And maybe you have to get good and angry before you're willing to get politically active and force lawmakers to reverse a pattern that is destroying America.

I get angry when Levine shows that the 1980s were "a decade of disaster for American children and families." In 1979, one of every seven babies in the United States was born in poverty. In 1989, the ratio was 1-to-4. "No other industrialized nation either in Europe or in the East increased its baby-poverty rate in the '80s, and we nearly doubled ours," Levine shouts.

What does all that mean, you ask?

"When you double the baby-poverty rate, you double the baby-disability or health-crisis rate," Levine says. "A baby born without adequate health care and nutrition is going to be born hurting. When you increase your baby-health problems, you increase your kindergarten failure rate and then your school dropout rate . . . the drug-abuse rate .

.

. crime rate. When you have a problem in your nation with the health of babies, it's an easy predictor that you're going to have a problem in your nation with your economic future.

"Our competitors don't have that problem. They are giving birth to healthy babies, and we're not. That's one of the reasons we're starting to lose the economic game."

Levine asks, "Does it just happen that more poor people have started having more babies? No. It's harder for young families to make it. In 1955 in America, 17 of 20 one-wage households could afford a private home. Thirty years later it was 3 of 20. We've flipped the American dream.

"Some say if Mom were home, we would have no problems. That might be true for some folks, but the economic reality in America is that without two household incomes, folks cannot afford the doctor, transportation, the roof over their head. That is a fact, and some are not able to get by even with two incomes."

Okay, let's get depressed.

"One-third of all U.S. children have no health insurance," Levine says. "Is this an accident? I wish I could tell you it is, but it is not. There are no accidents in politics. The weakest, meaning the youngest and their teen-age cousins and young families, were the weakest in politics in the 1980s. When our U.S. Congress had to make decisions in the 1980s, we put more money into the development and storage of death gas than we put into childhood immunizations. And it was not an accident. We cut the immunization budget while we did that by one-third. That meant a third of our toddlers, our preschoolers, were not fully immunized.

"When I go to second and third grades today, teachers are telling me that 8- and 9-year-olds in their classrooms are not the same as they were nine and 10 years ago. Their attention spans are less. They are less willing and able to learn. There's something the matter with some of those children. They were babies in the womb when our politicians said that without immunizations, without maternal health care, without prenatal care, without child abuse and neglect services, the kids will survive. My friends, those cuts have never healed."

Levine speaks with such passion and authority that I feel compelled to just quote him _ to stay out of his way. If only we could clone him.

While that may not work, we certainly can follow his call to get politically involved; to know where to find our elected representatives, and make sure of their commitment to healthy babies.

"We need to stand up where we live, where we work, where our children go to school and say "No more will we let someone else run our government!' " Levine says. "No more will anyone else in our name make sure that babies are hurt for not having health care. We will stand up and say babies will be healthier. No more will we put children into graves instead of kindergarten."

Amen.

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