Jewish mothers are often singled out for being overly protective of their children. If so, that sadly can’t be said about our national policies designed to protect families and children whose welfare has suffered a double hit both from past national neglect and now a crippling recession.

During the heyday of the war on poverty waged by President Lyndon Johnson, the rate of children in poverty fell from 23 percent in 1963 to 14 percent in 1969. Since then it has crept upward, hovering between 17 and 22 percent since 1980. It varies with economic downturns and government efforts to boost the well-being of children, or the lack thereof – children’s share of the federal non-defense budget has declined 23 percent since 1960.

African American children fare

the worst, with a poverty rate of 33 percent in 2006, the latest census data available, compared to 27 percent of Hispanic children and 10 percent of white children. At the height of the last major downturn in 1992, the rates shot up to 46 percent for African American children, 40 percent for Hispanic children, and 13 percent for white children.

So what might be happening now? It should come as no surprise that at the peak of the impact of the current recession (projected to be 2010), the well-being of children will fall back to 1975 levels, according to the Foundation for Child Development. And their numbers will be huge: the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that a 9 percent unemployment rate adds between 2.6 and 3.3 million to the ranks of children in poverty.

These numbers have lasting impact. The advocacy group First Focus has studied the fate of children who grew up during the past economic downturns of 1973-75 and 1980-82, tracking their incomes, employment, education, and health into adulthood for as long as 30 years. They conclude that children who experience poverty because of a recession are far worse off later in life when compared to children of similar socioeconomic status who escaped the impact of a recession as children.

The families of children who became poor due to a recession had incomes 30 percent less than families who were unaffected, even when measured many years later. As adults, these children earned significantly less and were about a third more likely to be living below the poverty line compared to the general population.

Surely some of this poverty gap is due to lack of education. The study found that about 93 percent of those who remained out of poverty during their childhood completed high school by age 27. In contrast, only 78 percent of the recession children had completed high school by then. Only about 13 percent of the recession group had finished 16 years of schooling by age 32, while one third of those unaffected by recession had attained the same level.

Finally, those who fell into poverty as a result of a recession occurring during their childhoods were much less likely to report themselves to be in excellent or very good health than those who did not. The health outcomes were strikingly close to those who had always been in poverty.

The cost of recession is not only high when it happens; its effects last for decades. That is why the federal budget for children and families is so important. President Obama’s budget contains an increase of $16.7 billion for children’s programs, an increase of 3.7 percent in real terms over the last budget. It contains significant increases for health care, nutrition, child welfare, education, and youth training.

But the budget is an uphill battle, given diminished funding in the past few years, falling tax revenues, and growing deficits.

Addressing the needs of children with a focus on both the chronically disadvantaged and the victims of the current recession is not only a moral imperative, but a utilitarian one. When a sizeable portion of our population does not participate equitably in our economy, our need for publicly funded social services goes up and our collective ability to pay for them goes down.

The welfare of children is a test of our will to ensure the well-being of future generations – those now in poverty and those more fortunate. The new federal budget must mark a new beginning for our children, and it is up to us, the Jewish mothers as well as the rest of the nation, to make sure that it does.

Nancy Ratzan is president of the National Council of Jewish Women, a grassroots organization inspired by Jewish values that strives to improve the quality of life for women, children, and families and to safeguard individual rights and freedoms.