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Forums: Children are top priority

Politicians take note: Americans are more worried about children and families than the economy, and they see virtually no one in public office addressing their concerns.

The findings came Wednesday from the National Issues Forums Institute, which has conducted town meetings in hundreds of communities to gauge national sentiment on families, the economy and foreign affairs.

"When everyday Americans deliberate about these issues, the talk is strikingly different than the political rhetoric we're used to hearing in election campaigns," said Ed Arnone, communications director for the Kettering Foundation, which sponsors the forums.

In other words, politicians aren't communicating to the public. Real people don't relate to an ideology of liberal vs. conservative, and they're sick of political television shows where people shout at each other.

What people are most worried about, these findings show, is the breakdown of the family and the future of children.

When participants gathered for the forums _ in schools, churches, libraries, even prisons _ they were given non-partisan background to read on the issues, then they listened to each other. Someone who criticized "welfare mothers" might discover he was sitting next to one and hear her story.

"There are American people in all walks of life and all parts of the country willing to take time and spend hours on an issue," said David Mathews, president of Kettering. America "still has a capacity for public deliberation."

In general, the participants agreed that no problems are simple and any solution requires a trade-off. They saw things holistically, not on a left-right spectrum, said John Doble, whose research firm compiled the reports.

They took responsibility for some of America's problems. They didn't just blame other people for social breakdown.

"They talked about their own kids and grandkids, and that's why it was so urgent," said Yvonne Sims, a moderator at forums in Grand Rapids, Mich.

"Everybody had personal experience with the family not doing what they feel a family should do, which is support the youth to become contributing citizens."

Participants especially wanted to see better parenting, whether it's a two-parent home or a single parent, but they weren't sure how to go about it. Certainly the government shouldn't force people into counseling, they said. Maybe churches and community groups could help.

The participants saw few answers coming from public leaders. For example, two-thirds of the participants wanted to discourage teen pregnancy, but only 21 percent saw that reflected in public policy.

The participants were deeply concerned that all children should have an equal shot at success, including college. They are willing to pay for programs that work _ Head Start is a popular one _ and they want a welfare system that moves people out of poverty.

Parents should be held accountable, participants said, but they don't want to see children hurt in the process.

And when analyzing the reasons for family breakdown, they acknowledged that some of the causes are permanent and not necessarily bad: women in the workforce, a more mobile society, more divorce.

Nobody wanted to go back to the 1950s.

"We have a tendency to think it used to be so wonderful, but it wasn't," a woman from El Paso said in a forum. "Wife beating, child abuse, intolerance about sexual orientation, people getting married under terrible circumstances _ things were not the way we sometimes like to think they were."

The economy has changed, too, and here there was less consensus.

The forums broke into roughly two camps. One, which tended to be older, white and male, said America has lost its work ethic. A younger group with more women and minorities said the old rules don't apply anymore. Hard work doesn't guarantee success, and executives are reaping undeserved millions while laying off workers.

Both groups see the middle class shrinking, but they don't want to soak the rich to redistribute income. They worry that the economy, especially the dearth of jobs for people with little education, feeds into a vicious cycle of social breakdown and troubled families.

Their ideas about foreign policy were almost as bleak. They aren't isolationists _ they want America to remain a leader _ but they want U.S. allies to help shoulder the burden.

And they have "almost no sense of pride, no sense of accomplishment that the U.S. has done anything worthwhile in the past 20 years in foreign affairs," Doble said.

The Persian Gulf war was only about oil, people said in the forums. Their sole memory of Somalia was seeing a Marine's body dragged through the streets. They saw no U.S. role in the peace and democracy that have come to Haiti, Northern Ireland or South Africa, and they gave the United States no credit for the fall of communism or the growing democracy in Russia.

Instead, they wanted to make sure domestic needs are no longer neglected.

"Confidence in every institution _ their country, the news media, business, labor, the medical profession, lawyers _ confidence is very low across the board," Doble said. "Sometimes it seems like we're almost becoming a nation of cynics. A democracy cannot be run by cynics."