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Children to March in D.C. in Defense of Welfare

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Today, tens of thousands of children will be marching to the Lincoln Memorial and carrying with them hopes for a revived liberal agenda.

Dubbed “Stand for Children,” the march and rally is the brainchild of Marian Wright Edelman, the relentless champion of federal aid programs for nutrition, education, health and welfare.

She conceived the idea of a children’s crusade in February when the entire structure of federal aid, especially welfare, was under attack in Congress.

The Republican majority, joined by many Democrats, said three decades of federal spending on welfare and poverty programs not only have failed to cure social ills but may have made them worse.

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Standing nearly alone, Edelman denounced the very idea of welfare reform as “morally indefensible” because it would probably cut the amount of federal money going to needy families.

She called the various welfare reform proposals “fatally flawed, callous, anti-child assaults” and publicly chided President Clinton for his willingness to support some of them. Clinton’s pledge to “end welfare as we know it” is in reality a move toward a “policy of national child abandonment,” Edelman said.

This weekend’s march is officially nonpartisan, and no political figures have been invited, including Edelman’s close friend, First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Still, child welfare advocates gathering here say they believe that the march might finally turn the political momentum away from “mean-spirited” cuts and give energy to a new effort to build support programs for poor children.

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“We hope this march will do for children what the 1963 March on Washington did for civil rights, and Earth Day did for the environment,” Edelman said.

In 1968, Edelman came to national prominence as a leader of the Poor People’s March on Washington, a demonstration planned by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. shortly before his assassination.

She founded the Children’s Defense Fund in 1973 and has headed the organization ever since. Each year, the group spotlights the plight of poor children in a report called “The State of America’s Children.” The 1996 report says that 21.5% of America’s children, or about 15.3 million, live in poverty, a much higher rate than in any of 17 other industrialized nations.

Welfare benefits, when adjusted for inflation, have shrunk in every state since 1970, the group says. California, which has the most generous benefits, offers a family of three $607 per month. Texas, at the bottom, offers only $188 per month for a family of three.

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Conservative activists accuse Edelman of using children to push what they call a familiar but failed agenda of more federal spending.

“This is rally for big government, using children as props,” said Gary L. Bauer, a former Ronald Reagan aide and president of the Family Research Council in Washington. “We agree with them that what’s happening to America’s kids is depressing, but we disagree on the solution. . . . The greatest crisis facing our children is the family breakdown, and they don’t say much about that.”

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative social policy group, asserted that the march is being organized by “groups that live off the taxpayer to lobby for more money.” It found that more than 100 of the sponsoring organizations “are direct federal grant recipients receiving more than $392 million annually.”

Leaders of the rally say that they are not making predictions on the size of crowd, but busloads of children, parents and child welfare workers are expected.

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“We have heard of a group of 400 coming from Pasadena, 200 from San Diego and at least a couple hundred more from the [San Francisco] Bay Area,” said Lorena Hernandez, a California organizer who works with Children Now, an Oakland-based advocacy group.

Several marches in support of the Washington event are planned for Los Angeles-area locations, including Los Angeles City Hall, where child advocates and officials from groups including United Teachers Los Angeles and anti-gang organizations are expected to gather after marching from the Board of Education. Similar events are scheduled at Torrance City Hall and at a shopping center in Sylmar.

The highlight of the Washington event will be a noon march of children from Arlington National Cemetery to the Lincoln Memorial. There the crowd will gather to hear speakers.


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