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A national conscience?

Is the national conscience merely asleep or is it dead? What kind of people can be indifferent to the fact that one in five American children lives in poverty? Or tamely accept the warning that within a decade the rate will be nearly one in four? Those are the ugly truths recounted Sunday by the Children's Defense Fund. With each new recession and with each shift in the nature of the job market, more families with children descend into poverty, never to emerge. No developed nation has been so callous since the early days of the industrial revolution, when it was discovered that even children made good factory hands.

But what's now happening in America is something worse than indifference, given how it contrasts with the government's solicitude for the elderly, the veterans and other interest groups that return favors with money or votes. Since the 1950s, the proportion of the aged who live in poverty has fallen from 35.2 percent to 11.4, but the proportion of children in poverty, after falling to a historic low of 14 percent in 1969, has been rising relentlessly since then. The Children's Defense Fund calculates that if low-income families with children got government aid at the same rate as the rest of the low-income population, there would be no children in poverty today.

The difference is explained largely in terms of such enormously popular entitlements for the elderly as Social Security, Medicare and veterans' benefits, which are not means-tested. Children, on the other hand, get government aid only in the worst of circumstances, and only by meeting the most stringent requirements. That can't be explained away solely by the fact that children don't vote. Prejudice accounts for much of it. Americans, you see, seem to believe wrongly that poverty occurs mostly among urban minorities, and that they deserve it.

Spending cuts under the Reagan and Bush administration have heaped more misery on the poor and the working poor. Again, there is profound contrast; according to the Defense Fund, the $28-billion a year it would take to lift every poor family with children to the poverty line is less than what it costs the treasury each year for wealthy people's tax breaks or to bail out the savings and loan industry.

The nation can afford to care for its children. In strictly economic terms _ human decency aside _ it cannot afford otherwise. An ever-growing population of children born into permanent poverty foretells the inevitable, irreversible decline of the United States as a world power. Politics follows economics, after all. Are the people of the United States that insensitive and that short-sighted?

America used to rise to such challenges. For almost four decades after President Franklin D. Roosevelt's stark warning of "one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished," the political system generated an endless stream of reforms that worked. The New Deal, the Fair Deal and the Great Society brought about enormous improvements in the lives of millions of Americans. If they could be faulted for anything, it is that they did not keep up with the rest of the industrialized world with respect to health care, minimum wages, long-term unemployment insurance and child care. But progress was being made.

In that memorable second inaugural address, FDR had spoken of "the need to find through government the instrument of our united purpose to solve for the individual the ever-rising problems of a complex civilization." He said government was responsible for finding "practical controls over blind economic forces and blindly selfish men." The test of progress, he added, "is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide for those who have too little." How ironic those words ring today. We seem to have a government that actually worships blind economic forces and idealizes blindly selfish men.

Yet this is a democracy, in which voters are presumed to deserve what they get. So you want to know who's to blame for child poverty?

Try looking in the mirror.

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