Read Princess Anne’s lips

By Ellen Goodman

The Boston Globe

BOSTON—Not long ago, in a London hotel room, I heard one of those very British television interviews with a “royal.” This time it was Princess Anne talking about her role as president of the Save the Children charity.

In the middle of the hour, quite out of the blue, the princess and mother told her interviewer directly, “I wasn’t particularly keen on children—and I’m still not. But you don’t actually have to like children very much to be interested in giving them the best possible start in life.”

At the time I thought she sounded like a member of Monty Python doing Princess Anne. How British can you get? Even in England, the only public officials who can admit to finding little ones less than enthralling are those who inherit their titles. I have never heard anyone in American politics say they didn’t ardently love the little tykes.

Now I am wondering whether Princess Anne isn’t onto something. We could use fewer professions of affection, photo opportunities of love, exhortations to care, and more hardheaded and hardhearted calculations about our interest “in giving them the best possible start in life.”

I have been brought to a cynical state by the endless progression of data-filled, chart-ridden, thoroughly documented and gloomy reports on the state of children in America. Reports on nutrition, education, housing, drugs, child-care. They have landed on my desk one after another.

If you can remember only one figure from these studies, let it be this one: One out of every five children in America is poor. If you can remember two figures, add this one: Our infant mortality rate is higher than 17 other industrial nations. Or add yet another: On any given night, there are 100,000 children among the homeless.

We know about these problems. But since the end of the presidential campaign, the man who was “haunted” by these visions had done little that you couldn’t read on his lips. On Inaugural Day, George Bush said we have more will than wallet. In fact we have more wallet than will. In an emergency, the government can bail out the savings and loan associations, but we lack the will to bail out children—to make the investments in their future.

As Marian Wright Edelman, the indefatigable head of The Children’s Defense Fund, says, “There is no sense of urgency. Nobody wants to make any decisions. The pressure is not going to come from Washington and the White House. It will only happen when people in the country say, ‘This must stop.'”

Why hasn’t that happened? Why isn’t there an outcry to stop this vast national case of child neglect? Children were indeed a hot topic during the endless campaign. Was it the prospect of taxes that cooled the ardor?

The young, more than the rest of us, have inherited the Reagan legacy, financially and emotionally. In the course of eight years, $40 billion was cut from programs for poor children and their families while the national debt doubled. Americans were taught not to look to the government for help. Now we are told the pockets are empty.

The emotional cycle follows the economic one. As the government pulls back from social service, middle-class taxpayers look more anxiously at their own bank balances. People who cannot count on help with education for their children or medical costs for their old age become more and more concerned about the need to take care of their own, and the definition of their own narrows. Read his lips.

The one idea put forward last week by the no-new-taxes administration is a tax credit for low-income families with pre-school children. It is mislabeled as a do-it-yourself, pay-for-your-own child-care assistance.

So it is time to be hardhearted. No more pictures of neo-natural clinics with the tiny babies of mothers who never got prenatal care of decent nutrition. No more television tours through the hapless welfare hotels and shelters where parents and children learn how not to be a family. No more stories about the funeral of a kid caught in a gun battle between drug dealers. No more appeals to moral sensibility or national pride.

Just the facts. Marian Edelman states them baldly. Look at these kids, she says. “Tomorrow they are going to be dependent on you, shooting at you, or working for you.”