March Madness

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As the nation prepares for the obligatory wringing of hands and lowering of flags on April 20th to mark the first anniversary of the Columbine massacre, consider these events of March:

Topping the news of the behaviorally grotesque was the handgun death of one six-year-old by another in Mount Morris, Mich.

The tragic case features the following (largely unacknowledged) elements: black on white crime, male on female crime, the unavailability of treatment on demand for drug addicts, the folly of promoting safe schools and communities without curbing the abundant availability of firearms, the pathetic state of child protection efforts nationwide, and the limits of "kinship care" and family preservation. Fully acknowledged is the utterly corrosive effects of combining weak family formation, parental neglect, drugs and guns with cultural and economic poverty.

March will also be remembered as the first month in American history in which more than 2 million people were locked up. They are - like the father of the six-year-old shooter in Michigan - parents, for better or worse, to 3 million children.

On March 7th California voters approved Proposition 21, which will soak up $1 billion over 30 years for more prison space to hold kids. Go ahead, said 62 percent of the voters, strip the money out of education, prevention and youth development programs. (Eighty-one percent of the voters were white, in a state where non-white youth are a majority and which is home to 13 percent of the country's 70 million under 18-year-olds.)

Developments in Congress during March were as discouraging for children as any time in recent memory. A minimum wage hike of one dollar an hour over three years was held hostage by an unrelated proposal to reduce taxes on the estates of the well-to-do. The latest futile effort to interdict cocaine produced in the Andes received a supplemental appropriations of $1.7 billion, while the House GOP's draft budget calls for a reduction of 6.5 percent in domestic discretionary programs - which will translate into cuts in funding for substance abuse treatment and prevention programs. Also on the cut list is Title XX of the Social Security Act, which provides core assistance to the states for the kind of family services so sorely missing in Mount Morris, Mich. Since 1997 Congress has cut Title XX from $2.5 billion to $1.7 billion, a 32 percent drop.

On the youth violence front, Congress remains a no-show. A flurry of post-Columbine task forces, caucuses and summits have petered out, not that anyone on or off Capitol Hill noticed. The House barely passed a non-binding resolution that merely said that a House-Senate conference should meet to consider stalled juvenile crime and gun-control measures.

Over at the White House, the president has finally gone full throttle on gun-control legislation, no act of political courage in this, his final year in office for eminently sensible measures (with 69 percent of Americans supporting stronger handgun control). That doesn't mean Congress will go along.

On the campaign trail for the White House, the March primary voters eliminated both Bill Bradley and John McCain, each in oddly different ways pushing a pro-kids agenda. After 18 years in the Senate supporting the domestic status quo, Bradley finally got religion and became an articulate supporter of community-based children and youth-serving agencies. That left rival Al Gore with the troublesome defense of public schools and business as usual. John McCain took little interest in grappling pragmatically with children's issues beyond tobacco control. But he did stress campaign finance reform, which has been labeled as the Number Two issue for everyone in the children and youth field.

As the whole nation should know, the current method of electing and re-electing members of Congress and the president will almost always mean that your Number One concern is trumped by the odorous requirements of campaign fund raising. In 1999 (an off-year for elections) candidates for Congress raised $318 million dollars, up from $233 million raised in 1997. Consider how much time incumbent members of Congress must spend raising that kind of money. Now consider how much time a typical member of Congress spends grappling with how to cost-effectively strengthen schools, child welfare services or crime prevention programs.

If your answer to the latter question is "almost nil," then you understand why sensible campaign finance reform is, in reality, child advocacy issue Number One.