A Federal Food Fight

THE flurry of spending chops in Congress has redrawn a classic battle line in American politics - between hard-hearted Republicans and bleeding-heart Democrats.

Those characterizations surfaced in a hurry when House Republicans aimed their spending cleavers at school lunches, Supplemental Nutrition for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), and food stamps.

That last target, food stamps, was spared when Republican farm-state legislators hastened to defend a program that absorbs a lot of what their constituents produce. That says something about the power of political clout to blunt ideological purpose.

The same forces are not in play for school lunches and WIC. Their backing comes mainly from child and family advocates who believe these programs have done an admirable job of helping youngsters and mothers who might otherwise go hungry. If the programs were to shrink significantly under Republican ``block grant'' plans, Democratic cries of ``mean-spirited'' and ``an assault on children'' could have some substance.

The Republicans want to hold funding to a lower rate of increase. School lunches and WIC have expanded considerably in recent years, as the economy drooped and income disparities grew. That ability to expand with need would largely disappear under the block grant approach, which puts a lump sum of money in state hands.

Presumably, state control would cut bureaucratic costs at the federal level, where eligibility rules are now set and administered. But such costs are likely to shift stateward: Someone has to assess how the money is used.

The burden on state officials could feel suspiciously like a mandate - if not an ``unfunded'' one, at least one that could bring some funding anxieties as need fluctuates.

And costs should be seen in broader terms than immediate outlays. Each school day 25 million American children get subsidized or free meals through the school-lunch program. Experts worry that, given the option by states, many school districts will drop the program. What's the cost to the nation if large numbers of children can no longer count on at least one square meal a day?

The consequences of changing the way the country provides a nutritional safety net for needy citizens should be thoughtfully weighed before rushing in with the budget ax. Otherwise, ``hard-hearted'' may be apt.

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