America's children are growing up without their parents; even when parents are present, too often children are growing up without the benefit of parental wisdom and guidance. Homes headed by single parents are routine.

This national crisis cuts across economic, racial and ethnic lines. For millions of youngsters, childhood is no longer a secure, safe and happy time. The War on Poverty dramatically reduced the desperation of elderly Americans; now poverty has become a burden disproportionately carried by children. The problems today - lack of guidance and direction, lack of caring, lack of usable education, lack of proper nutrition - are the problems of the nation. More than any external force, these truly domestic problems threaten the future of the United States and every person who lives here.Most parents would like to think this crisis is happening to somebody else's kids. They should think again. Dad and Mom both work in 90 percent of American families. When parents are tired or distracted, they are less likely to set rules, keep to a routine, discipline their children or maintain the kind of stable, secure and structured homes they knew as children.

Their sons and daughters are often left at home without supervision. Unsupervised children are at greater risk of experimenting early with sex and drugs. Even when they don't get into serious trouble, they often slack off, just getting by - never to achieve their best in school or later in life.

Drug abuse - the nightmare of the '90s - fractures more families every day. Addicted mothers ignore the most basic needs of their children. Fathers who turn to drugs often turn abusive. Their children bear the scars of this national scourge. The suffering starts at birth for crack babies, and lasts a lifetime for some. Thousands of these children end up in foster care. Many more end up homeless.

Abused and homeless children, the extreme examples of the new reality of childhood, are more common in cities. But even in suburbia few children can escape knowing about drugs, sex or violence.

America's children are twice as likely to be murdered today as compared to when their parents were young - and three times more likely than the children of their parents' generation to kill themselves.

Why haven't these damning statistics prompted national action? Who cares? Barely one out of three American households has kids. Somebody else's children are somebody else's problems. Who votes? Kids obviously can't, so their problems are put off as somehow less urgent.

But few Americans will escape the impact of a less-competitive work force, or the higher taxes needed to pay for increases in crime and other social problems if the problems continue unchecked. Pragmatism - and compassion - should motivate national solutions to eliminate poverty, fear and failure for America's children.