COMMENTARY/Paul Wellstone

Kids stand to lose most in budget fight

In early July, President Clinton visited some of the poorest regions of the country and, to bipartisan acclaim, spoke eloquently of our obligations to America's most disadvantaged children.

Now, with the US economy performing at its peak, we have an unprecedented opportunity to back up our words with actions. As Congress begins making critical decisions on budget priorities for decades to come, there is no better time than now to demonstrate the depth of our commitment to America's children, especially the poorest among them.

Judging from the tax bills now making their way through both houses of Congress, that commitment doesn't run very deep. In fact, both parties are financing their tax plans with devastating spending cuts that will visit even more hardship on America's children.

The surplus is now estimated at about $1 trillion over 10 years. But those surpluses depend almost entirely on assumed cuts in future domestic spending. If we maintain current discretionary spending levels over the next decade, between 75% and 90% of the non-Social Security surplus disappears.

Republican plans wouldn't restore any of those cuts. In fact, they cut another $200 billion. Assuming increases in Pentagon spending requested by President Clinton -- a minimum figure, since the GOP-led Congress is pressing for much more -- the Republican budget would require a 38% cut in domestic spending in 2009.

The Republican tax bills are larded with corporate welfare for multinational corporations, banks, insurance companies and Wall Street securities firms as well as tax giveaways for the wealthy.

Even the Democratic budget alternative fails to fully restore those cuts. Senate Democrats have reserved $290 billion of the surplus to soften the blow on discretionary priorities like education, but they allow spending cuts on the order of $305 billion. Actual reductions in domestic spending will have to be much larger, though. Since funding for defense and transportation is already slated to grow significantly over the next 10 years, other domestic priorities will be squeezed even more.

How can Democrats say we're for addressing the needs of America's children, for fighting poverty, for fully funding Head Start, for equal access to quality education, for helping working families afford the high costs of health care and child care, for cleaning up the environment, for community policing and for full funding of veterans' health care when we're assuming domestic spending cuts of more than $305 billion? Something has to give.

Meanwhile, there are 14 million children -- close to 1 in 4 -- growing up poor in our country today and 6.5 million of them living in extreme poverty, in households with incomes less than half the poverty line. Childhood poverty overall has grown by a fifth since the 1980s. Yet we are now being told by both parties that even with a booming economy and record surpluses, we cannot live up to our national vow of equal opportunity for every child. That is unconscionable.

Some worry about the cost and complexity of combating childhood poverty. Nonsense. We know what works. The importance of early childhood development and the growth of the infant brain -- subjects of a White House conference last year -- is clear: You have to get it right for children by the age of 3. This is one area where the federal government can and must play a much more constructive role. Head Start can make a difference by stimulating imagination and laying the foundations for reading, writing and working with numbers. But today, Head Start is funded to accommodate only four out of 10 eligible children, and funding for Early Head Start, a promising program for children under 3, covers only 1 percent of eligible toddlers. We must set a national goal of fully funding these and other key investments in children.

Our economic performance is about as good as it's going to get. Thanks to strong economic growth, we've eliminated the deficit. We're piling up record budget surpluses, if you count Social Security. And what are Democrats proposing? A substantial increase in defense spending, and more than $305 billion in spending cuts for our domestic priorities.

There has to be some connection between the convictions we profess and the budgets we propose, or the chasm between our words and our actions becomes too wide. If we don't fight hard enough for the things we stand for, at some point we have to recognize that we don't really stand for them.

Paul Wellstone, a Democrat, represents Minnesota in the US Senate.

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