THE GOOD NEWS is that the president has decided to do dramatic battle against rampant inflation. The bad news is that he has asked the poor to be the cannon fodder in this war.
In the swirl of remedies the president and the House Budget Committee are proposing, the poor run the risk of having their present plight aggravated beyond endurance. These are our nation's have-nots, the one-third without passbook savings accounts, the group without insurance policies to cash in, without parents to borrow from.
It's as though the administration's curious prescription for the racking pain the poor are now enduring is to jab the needle deeper, while soothingly saying that things will improve if only they can suffer more exquisitely. Save us. This group has no more reserves of suffering.
The president's latest package had not even left his ornate quarters last week when I sat in a basement apartment beneath black-painted pipes and listened to divorcee Evelyn Hampton, 39, the sole support of her three children, as she described the economic precipice on which her family perches. Then she added:
"I feel that there are people out here trying to work for themselves and their children and they should get a little help. I wouldn't take welfare. But it looks like our government tries to keep us down. The people are barely able to live."
I think we all will have to pay a price for fighting inflation because we all stand to gain, but pursuing a policy that make society's weakest pay disproportionately is just plain inhumane.
I think there are any number of ways to cut and balance the budget that won't require this. The administration has been selective in protecting the housing, automobile and household appliance industries against credit control. It can create imaginative policies to protect the poor.
Take the milk subsidy program, for example. Why cut it across the board, as some officials are proposing? Why don't we selectively decide that poor children will continue to get the milk they so desperately need, while we withhold it from the middle-and upper-income groups?
And why would a government that needs a program such as the Comprehensive Employment Training Act (CETA) kill it, knowing that it will have to resurrect a clone?
CETA is designed to make basic changes in the way the labor market operates. It is designed to provide salable employment skills to the economic underclass that is growing more every day. Throwing it out because it has problems is pitching the infant out with the bath water.
I asked Herrington Bryce, vice president of the Academy for Contemporary Problems and an economic consultant for the NAACP, about the CETA program. He was encouraging.
"For every study that shows that a CETA program does not work, there is one that shows that it does," he said.
President Carter came into office promising to reduce the rate of unemployment in real terms. He said he would protect the interests of the have-nots. If this is protection, it is akin to ordering them machine-gunned but telling the executioner to make the pain minimal.
All this argues for some real debate of this package. It begs for openness and hard questions. Why must we put even more people out of work? What are we getting for our $20 billion defense budget? Congressmen Ronald Dellums (D-Calif.) calls the increases in military spending "the most wasteful and inflationary of all government expenditures."
We've got to talk about this anti-inflation package, dissect it and weigh its consequence. Its attack on the poor is uncaring and unwarranted. Absence of debate on it will be more than bad news; it will be truly dangerous.