Today the Reagan administration submits its deficit-cutting budget that features more extensive cuts in social programs and greater increases in military spending.
The Reagan administration knows nothing of the woman I talked to recently who lives in an apartment 12 blocks from the White House.
She supports herself and four sons on $460 a month in public assistance and $200 in food stamps, which is supplemented by handouts from Bread for the City, a private organization that distributes food to people who increasingly are falling through Ronald Reagan's social safety net.
It could easily be said that food is at a premium in her house. Like a second color television or a VCR for some families, a piece of cheese is a luxury. "I try to teach my kids to save food and let it last the whole month," she said. "But . . . it usually runs out . . . . So I don't eat. I give it to them."
Frankly, the ideological tennis match being played by conservatives and liberals doesn't much matter to her, even though it will determine how her family eats.
While the news media have focused on the homeless this cold winter, the poor and marginal among us have become relatively invisible. But they are still human beings with problems and deferred dreams. And they cannot eat rhetoric.
In today's conservative, survival-of-the-fittest atmosphere, it is easy to judge harshly the have-nots. The same people who can be crankily tolerant of the Defense Department's $400 hammers or $700 coffeepots will cheer President Reagan's newest plan to freeze food stamps and force recipients to absorb the 1986 inflation themselves.
But for the woman who lives 12 blocks from the White House, life is not so pat and judgments are not so ready. At 33, she reflects on her own poverty and knows little realistic hope. Within she knows she fits the stereotype that too many people are saying they do not want to perpetuate: Second-generation-welfare, a mother since age 17, a school dropout who has no job training.
The Washington Cathedral recently reported that 18.6 percent of Washington's 640,000 residents, or about 119,000 people, live below the poverty line -- and concluded a survey of hunger by noting that it "is a very real problem in the nation's capital."
We cannot let children and the elderly go hungry in this city, or elsewhere, if America is to live up to the ideals it has espoused around the world.
Now that Reagan has convinced the country that government should be doing less to solve national problems and that individuals and businesses should be doing more, it is easy to be overly simplistic. We need to avoid taking an either-or attitude.
The national frame of mind that the president has engendered makes it difficult for the well-off to grasp that to be poor in America increasingly carries the double negative of both material and psychological disadvantage. Isolated and invisible in many ways, the poor nevertheless stand out in contrast to the relative affluence of the society.
I asked the woman who lives 12 blocks from the White House what she wants for her sons, but she is too consumed with mere survival to have a real focus for their futures. That is the real tragedy of today's zero-based existence, and there is not much hope it will get any better unless some of the current thinking is softened.
That is why Congress has to fight the Reagan administration's attempt to pay for the deficit largely on the backs of the poor, by washing its hands of them and looking the other way while they go wanting -- as near as a dozen blocks away.