Hiding Behind the Children

Commentary by Pete du Pont

Maybe the Third Big Lie, "I'm from the government and I'm here to help you," should be amended to "I'm from the government and I'm here to help the children."

Lately, whenever bureaucrats or lawmakers want to intrude further into the life of the American family or increase the size of government, invariably we are told "it's for the children."

It's a good sales pitch. Who does not want our children to be safe, physically and mentally healthy, and well educated?

So, for example, Administrator Carol Browner of the Environmental Protection Agency wants to tighten the standards for particulate matter and ozone in the air - that's basically soot and smog - and assures us that the increase in asthma among children is a major reason.

Congress has voted to spend $24 billion over five years to provide health insurance to more uninsured children from low-income families - because, we are told, the number of uninsured children is growing rapidly. Both President and Mrs. Clinton assure us that there is a child care crisis, and the president proposes spending about $21.7 billion for more state regulation of day care and for state child-care subsidies.

The "for the children" agenda gets lots of support from advocacy groups that, like the president, have learned to couch their philosophical goals in warm, fuzzy terms. Even their names - like Children's Defense Fund and Families USA - connote loving care in the bosom of the family.

But just saying it's for the children doesn't make it so. Wasn't it "for the children" that Janet Reno authorized the government attack on the Branch Davidian compound at Waco?

So, when examined more closely, the "for the children" argument for stricter clean air standards collapses under the facts. The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases has found that the leading cause of asthma among children is an allergic reaction to cockroach droppings and carcasses. Higher after-tax household income would help the children more than cracking down on ozone levels.

As for the argument about spending more on health insurance for children, it is based on a false premise. Rather than skyrocketing, the percentage of uninsured children has been about the same for the past decade, although it has risen slightly since Clinton took office. Further, the government already has a health insurance program for low- income children - Medicaid - and about three million of those who are eligible have never joined the program.

A child care crisis? Only about one in 10 preschoolers is in formal day care, and the Department of Health and Human Services found that 96 percent of all parents were "satisfied" or "highly satisfied" with their child care arrangements, as were 95 percent of families with incomes under $15,000 a year. But the Clintons are concerned because they say day care is not sufficiently regulated.

Considering most of the proposals emanating from Washington "for the children," instead of applauding we would be better advised to put our hands on our wallets.

The biggest problem with all this government help for children is that most families are already getting more help from the government than they can afford. This is particularly true of many lower middle-income families with children - people earning just enough to price them out of eligibility for the Earned Income Tax Credit. Both adults are working outside the home, not to improve their standard of living but because one adult's entire earnings go to taxes.

The average family of four today pays almost one-quarter of its income in federal taxes, compared to three percent in 1950. Does that tell you anything about why there are more two-income families today? When you add state and local taxes, today's average family pays 38 percent of its income to taxes. And that's only considering direct taxes. Bear in mind that the family pays indirect taxes on everything it buys -food, clothing, gasoline, everything - because of the additional taxes for labor and materials necessarily built into its price.

If our lawmakers and the president really want to help the children, they could begin by dramatically reducing spending, not increasing it, and then they could cut the taxes that are forcing a lot of spouses to work when they'd rather be home with the kids.