Daily events can be so mind-boggling that sometimes we can bring the present into focus only by looking at the past. After reading recent reports on how the number of America's poor children is spiraling upward at the same time that the economy is improving, I reread Jonathan Swift's "A Modest Proposal" and discovered what a biting force satire can be.
In this classic English essay, subtitled "For Preventing the Children of Poor People in Ireland From Being A Burden to Their Parents or Country, and for Making Them Beneficial to the Public," Swift outlined an outrageously absurd proposal on how to deal with the 18th century's "Irish problem." Swift, a humanitarian, told his contemporaries in no uncertain terms that if they were not going to feed, train and assist the Irish in self-development, they ought to consider eating the children.
In his words: "I do therefore humbly offer it to public consideration that . . . the remaining hundred thousand Irish children may at a year old be offered in sale to the persons of quality and fortune through the kingdom, always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump and fat for a good table."
Of course Swift's proposal was not meant to be taken literally but rather to focus attention on a shocking situation. Today's situation is as shocking as the one Swift satirically presented: Through his administration's economic policies, which have made the rich richer and the poor rummage through garbage cans for food, Ronald Reagan has increased and worsened the lot of poor children among us.
Understanding that a number of people contributed to the plight of Ireland's poor children, Swift also said: "I grant this food will be somewhat dear, and therefore very proper for landlords, who, as they have already devoured most of the parents, seem to have the best title to the children."
Interestingly enough, while Reagan says his tax bill is going to help those on the bottom (i.e., the children), it will really benefit those at the top, particularly the defense contractors. How easy to substitute defense contractors for landlords.
Swift computed the charge of nursing a beggar's child -- "rags included" -- at 10 shillings; Ronald Reagan's administration computed the cost of toilet seats from Lockheed-California at $600. Screwdrivers from General Electric that cost $780 were not too expensive. A $7,400 coffee machine was not an aberration when Weber Aircraft presented the bill.
While these ludicrous transactions were taking place, 13.8 million American children were living in poverty, according to a new House Ways and Means Committee study. The study also found that the incidence of poverty among childen climbed by more than 50 percent between 1973 and 1983.
Making a racial comparison of the 13.8 million children living in poverty, The Children's Defense Fund concluded that during the last five years black children have been "sliding backwards" and are increasingly suffering from "inequality that denies opportunity to millions."
Meanwhile, the highest rate of child poverty in families headed by women has been among Hispanic children, reports the National Association of Latino Elected Officials.
"Whether poverty is measured before or after government transfer payments," says Rep. Harold Ford (D-Tenn.), chairman of the Ways and Means subcommittee on public assistance and unemployment compensation, "and whether the income counted includes or excludes noncash benefits and money paid as taxes, child poverty rates rose especially sharply between 1979 and 1983."
Perhaps the question we should all ask is this: Do we really want to fatten the purses of already rich defense contractors at the expense of children?
Unlike Swift, who said in his "modest proposal" that "I desire the reader will observe, that I calculate my remedy for this one individual kingdom of Ireland and for no other than ever was, is, or I think ever can be upon earth," I have an "immodest proposal" to make to the Reagan administration:
Get some photographs of the 13.8 million children living in poverty in our country, and look each day upon the faces of American hunger.