Destroy Them to Save Them

March 03, 1995|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- It's early morning and I am surfing. The remote control in my hand is traveling swiftly across dozens of television channels. But the same wave is breaking on every network news show.

It's Phil Gramm on ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN. Ever since the Texas senator decided to run for the White House with his ''reliable friend'' called ''Ready Money,'' he's been on more channels than anyone but O.J. Simpson.

The Gramm who faces me across the bedroom this morning is hard to take before coffee. His appearances could be used as aversion therapy for someone trying to kick politics. Compared to Gramm, Dick Nixon seemed warm and cuddly. Then again, Nixon was elected president.

But it's not just the Gramm image that repeatedly splashes cold water onto my pillow. It's the message that comes crashing in. This is how it goes:

''I think the American people want less government, they want the right to keep their own money to invest in their own children. . . .''

Click.

''I'm going to cut . . . so that families can invest more of their own money in their own children. . . .''

Click.

''The real battle is . . . so that families can keep more of their own money to invest in their own children. . . .''

Click.

Is it conceivable that the senator can sell his ''I'm-the-most-conservative'' candidacy as a pro-child campaign? Or does he have a better chance selling himself as Brad Pitt?

This pro-kid pitch is all the rage among the newly muscular right wing. Even the Contract With America is full of reassuring kindly pieties about the little people in our homes. They are served up as conservative condiments meant to grace the empty school-lunch tray.

But chief among the pro-child lines is the one that Senator Gramm expresses with such surf-pounding regularity. It's the idea that we can wholly privatize childhood. If only the government would disappear, families would have enough money to do right by their own kids. They don't say which families or whose kids.

Maybe a little surfing of the facts is in order before the country's memory is wiped out. Try some of these:

Today 23 percent of the children in American are living below the poverty line.

Click.

A third of all American children will live in poverty before they turn 16.

Click.

The median income for a family with at least one child and a head of household under 30 is $18,420.

Click.

The highest-income families in America could do a whole lot with their tax money.

A family earning $132,000 pays about $45,000 in state, local and federal taxes. It could use that money to pay for private schools, pizza delivery at lunchtime, piano and soccer lessons. There might be something left over to pay for a policeman or two.

But a poor family? Young parents who have children while they are in their low-earning years? As Deborah Weinstein of the Children's Defense Fund puts it, ''They'd barely get enough to pay for a McGuffey Reader.'' The notion that middle-income parents could buy much more than sneakers -- say, schools and safety nets -- is equally absurd.

Of course, not even the extremists on the extreme right are truly planning to do away with taxes. Nor are they going to touch Social Security, although taxes to support the old of all incomes pose the heaviest burden for young, low-income families.

In reality, the ''pro-child'' conservative argument is a cover-up for policies that purposely and directly strike at children, especially poor children. From Newt to Phil, the idea of totally privatizing children does more than ignore the poor. It detonates the belief that all Americans are shareholders in the next generation.

As for the surfer of this current wave, Phil Gramm? He was raised with the help of one government check -- his dad's disability payment -- and went to school on another -- the War Orphans Act. Now he would get rid of most, especially welfare.

But the candidate of Ready Money doesn't want you to get the wrong idea: ''I'm not going to be swayed by people who say, 'You have no compassion.' I have great compassion.'' It's just that when he talks like that, it ought to scare the kids.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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