BOSTON. — Boston -- Kids don't vote. We have heard this cry so often that it's hard to know any longer if it's a lament or an excuse for the neglect of the youngest and poorest Americans.
Why don't children's concerns reach the top of the government agenda? Kids don't vote.
Why doesn't child care, child abuse, child health, child housing, get a priority bid for our tax dollars? Kids don't vote.
Why doesn't the White House, the State House, City Hall pay more attention to their needs? Kids don't vote.
There is something sad about this generic, all-purpose answer and something cynical as well. It's as if the every-man-for-himself, me-first wrestling for tax money were a given, as if there were no longer any belief in the common wealth. And as if politicians were helpless in the face of the ''reality'' that -- after all -- kids don't vote.
But this fall, as national concern grows about the deteriorating condition of our young, the people of San Francisco have become part of an experiment. On November 5, this city with a smaller percentage of children than any other of its size will vote on a Children's Amendment. Proposition J, as it is formally listed on the ballot, would change the city charter to mandate the use of a small portion of property-tax money specifically for children.
A group of advocates, frustrated and despairing, have decided to bet everything on the hope that the public is miles ahead of the politicians. As Margaret Brodkin, the ebullient head of Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth, which authored this amendment, describes: ''Kids have been just so shortchanged. Even the most liberal, progressive politicians have been wonderful on the rhetoric and wanting to do the right thing. But when push came to shove and the resources were limited, they didn't want to waste political chits on a constituency that had no clout.''
In San Francisco, as in every big city, the budget brokers have been juggling all the mounting woes of urban life. But as reports of child abuse in the city increased 400 percent, with 5,000 children listed among the homeless, with the day-care waiting lists reaching 8,000, the children's share of the budget, according to Coleman Advocates, went down.
So this spring, with 68,000 signatures in a city of 750,000, supporters got children on the ballot. ''This is an experiment. We're asking if the people are going to be more far-sighted than City Hall,'' says Ms. Brodkin. Despite one poll that showed 75 percent support, she adds, ''I don't sleep at night.''
The Children's Amendment doesn't ask for new tax dollars. It asks that for the next 10 years kids get a larger portion. Exactly 1.25 percent of property taxes would go to this purpose the first year and 2.5 percent in each of the next nine years, adding about $13 million more to child care, prenatal care, job training for teen-agers, health and social services.
This is by no means a perfect idea, as even its advocates agree. The money that goes to children must come from somewhere else and there are needs all around the Bay city. Many supporters of Prop J worried at first that the amendment would precipitate generational warfare, or pit AIDS patients against homeless children against public workers.
But the list of endorsers includes senior citizens, gays, police and more remarkably, politicians. Seven of the 11 city supervisors support it. Mayor Art Agnos, running for re-election, calls it ''an idea whose time has come.'' These are the politicians who could have increased funds for children on their own. Why didn't they? Mr. Agnos speaks of the ''competing priorities'' and then adds, ''Kids don't vote.''
In polls, Americans say they are worrying about kids. In surveys they say, yes, we would tax ourselves to educate, house, care for the young. But nearly every attempt to translate that alarm into policy is paralyzed. We have come to the sorry place where even politicians are asking to be saved from politics -- as if they were paralyzed in the face of the process.
So, an experiment, born of desperation, is facing its first test in San Francisco under the watchful eyes of other cities and other citizens. ''If we have to tie their hands to get policy makers to fund prenatal care'' says Ms. Brodkin, so be it. Now it's up to the grown-ups.
Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.