If the true measure of a society lies in how it treats its young and old members, then psychologist Lee Salk has some grave reservations about this country.
"What is so horrendous about (President Reagan's proposed) budget cuts," he told the Congressional Wives Club, "is that the people who are hurt are children.
"In this society, there are always the first to go. Look at where the budget cuts have been -- child welfare services and training, child abuse, the Department of Education, NIMH.
"Then you ask what causes a (Mark) Chapman . . . or a (John) Hinckley. It's not the affluence. It's that the unity of the family -- where children learn skills to cope with life's problems -- doesn't get much support from our institutions."
A specialist in parent-child relationships, Salk, 53, is a professor at Cornell University Medical College in New York, past president of the American Psychological Association's Division of Child and Youth Services, a magazine columnist, television consultant and author.
Salk, who said he was in town last week to "talk to some of your husbands," expressed "particular pleasure" at addressing the club because they are "opinion shapers."
"I'd like to get a million-dollar grant to change the image of children in America. Our basic attitude is one of not really respecting our children, but of looking upon them as a burden.
"But children affect you, me and the future of our country. A child's unfulfilled needs can manifest themselves in destructive behavior later on. So if we don't give our children what they need today we're going to lose out."
Although most parents mean well, he said, their already-difficult job is made harder by lack of support from government and business.
In reply to Salk's comment, "I want to emphasize that when I'm talking about parents I'm not just talking about mothers," there was a chorus of soft "amens," along with some pursed lips. "Fathers," he said, "do play an important role."
In the process of interviewing people -- from murderers to average citizens -- for a book on father-son relationships, Salk said he found "the need for paternal recognition -- even in a family with a strong, loving mother -- is so intense, that people will go to any lengths to get it.
"When the father is psychologically absent, there can be a great deal of delinquency. A father has to do more than put a bumper sticker on his car saying 'Have you hugged your kid today?' Every one of our busy legislators should take time out for family."
Although Salk conceded that society is beginning to help parents through such measures as flexible work schedules and job sharing, his hope is that there will be more "bending of our institutions to meet family needs" in the future. Among his suggestions: establishing child-care and parent-education facilities near the workplace, giving Social Security and tax benefits to homemakers, and providing finances for families of legislators to accompany them on every third or fourth business trip.
He said other institutions -- from hospitals to restaurants -- should also consider changing their policies to respect family needs.
"People are always writing to ask my opinion of taking kids to restaurants. "I say, 'Yes, take them, but go to a Chinese or Italian restaurant and you'll always get a good seat. Those cultures respect kids.' The French are not that keen on little kids, and you may wind up seated close to the men's room.
"I think mealtime is a very important time to talk to one another. These are sacred times in Mediterranean countries -- people come home to have a big meal and siesta in the middle of the day. In this country we could use dinner and breakfast as times to get together as a family."
One reason children get the leftover piece of the American pie, said Salk, "is that they have absolutely no political impact. If they could vote you could be sure things would be different."
Should children have the vote? "It may seem ludicrous, but straw polls in schools turn out very accurate. I would absolutely not rule out the possibility.
"And don't say the 18-year-old have been given it and don't use it. I think the reason isn't that they're not interested, but that they've seen so much political corruption."
Salk says five years ago he wrote President-elect Carter suggesting a new cabinet position to represent America's children, but received only a "mimeographed response."
"That kind of deafness," he says, "bothers me." He has not yet made a similar suggestion to President Reagan.
Despite his reservations about America's attitude toward children, Salk says he is "optimistic about the American family. I think the divorce rate is going to drop because people are being more open, honest and realistic about the expectations they have in a marriage."
Salk, who has been divorced about eight years, said he sees divorce "not as a failure, but as a developmental stage. People don't know when they marry what they are going to find."
Whether single parent, extended or nuclear, he says, "the family is the key unit in our society. It's not the structure, but the function of providing self-worth and self-esteem that makes it a meaningful unit.
"If we don't have a strong family it weakens our capacity for coping with stress later on." As an example, he pointed to the problem of violence in America.
While he said we express "concern for violence in our society . . . there is little regard for the fact that what happens to our youth today determines who will pull a trigger 20 years from now."