The battle to help children, at home and in Iraq

Of all the pictures coming out of Iraq these days, few are more heart-rending than those of children, the most innocent victims of any war.

In one photo a little girl, probably no more than 3 years old, looks terrified as she and her family flee Basra. In another picture, a young boy fights for a box of food being handed out by British forces. A 4-year-old girl finds comfort in the arms of a military doctor after her mother was killed in Iraqi crossfire. And a newborn is cradled by a woman fleeing Baghdad on foot.

Already, UNICEF is appealing for $166 million to support what it calls "urgent humanitarian aid for children and women most at risk from the war." Among other provisions, the money will be used to feed malnourished children and pregnant women, to care for traumatized children, and to help children return to school as soon as possible.

But as war coverage crowds other news off Page 1, the needs of American children have become almost invisible. The smoke of battle darkening the skies over Baghdad obscures a looming war of another kind, this one inthe halls of Congress.

Child advocates call it a budget war. Although it involves no guns, tanks, or bombs, it could put poor children and their families at risk, creating a need within our own borders for "urgent humanitarian aid."

This conflict raises a question: What will the combination of war costs - $80

million for the first six months - and $1.4 trillion in tax cuts over 10 years do to other areas of life?

According to the Children's Defense Fund in Washington, just a few of these new tax-cut provisions will give the richest 1 percent of Americans an average of $30,000 each. By contrast, someone in the bottom fifth of taxpayers will get only $6 from the same tax cuts.

Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund, calls this "the most dangerous time our children

have faced" since her organization began 30 years ago. She explains that the House budget passed last month "makes some of the biggest cuts to children's programs in history." Lawmakers, she charges, are "dismantling, eliminating, cutting, and freezing essential services for children to pay for massive tax breaks for the rich."

An estimated 30,000 low-income children would lose child-care assistance next year if the budget freezes child-care services for five years. More than half a million children would be dropped from after-school activities if those services lose $400 million in funding.

The budget would give states more power to shape Head Start, the program for disadvantaged preschoolers. And cuts in child-nutrition programs could leave 2.4 million low-income children without school lunches, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

No wonder Mrs. Edelman has been barnstorming lately, stumping for children, trying to get her message heard above the din of war, hopingto stop this Robin Hood in reverse - taking from the poor to give to the rich.

Tonight, at the Children's Defense Fund's annual conference in Washington, presidential candidates will take part in a forum on children's issues. They will have a chance to tell several thousand child advocates where they stand on such topics as education, health care, and poverty.

Washington is not the only place with red ink, of course. In California, an estimated 25,000 teachers received pink slips in recent weeks because of budget deficits. Although not all of them will lose their jobs, the numbers reflect the magnitude of the problem. Similarly, in Boston, officials plan to close five schools and lay off 600 teachers in June to reduce budget deficits.

Edelman likes to quote Winston Churchill, who, even amid the deprivation and devastation of World War II, was able to say, "There is no finer investment for any community than putting milk into babies."

Perhaps the term "guns and butter" could be updated to read "guns and babies" or "guns and children." How can Congress meet these dual priorities and still give huge tax cuts?

That question will hang in the air long after the last bomb has dropped on Iraq. The answers to it will shape the lives of many children.

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