An open letter to the president.

I am calling for your unwavering moral leadership for children and opposition to Senate and House welfare and Medicaid block grants, which will make more children poor and sick.

As president, you have the opportunity and personal responsibility to protect children from unjust policies. It would be a great moral and practical wrong for you to sign any welfare "reform" bill that will push millions of already poor children and families deeper into poverty, as both the Senate and House welfare bills will do. It would be wrong to destroy the 60-year-old guaranteed safety net for children, women and poor families as both the Senate and House welfare bills will do.

It would be wrong to leave millions of voteless, voiceless children to the vagaries of 50 state bureaucracies and politics, as both the Senate and House bills will do. It would be wrong to strip children of or weaken current ensured help for their daily survival and during economic recessions and natural disasters, as both the Senate and House bills will do. It would be wrong to exacerbate rather than alleviate the current shameful and epidemic child poverty that no decent, rich nation should tolerate for even one child.

Both the Senate and House welfare bills are morally and practically indefensible. Rather than solve widespread child deprivation, they simply shift the burden onto states and localities with far fewer federal resources, weakened state maintenance of effort and little or no state accountability. As you well know, these block grants are not designed primarily to help children or to make families more self-sufficient. They are Trojan Horses for massive budget cuts and for imposing an ideological agenda that says that government assistance for the poor and children should be dismantled and cut while government assistance for wealthy individuals and corporations should be maintained and even increased. Do you think the Old Testament prophets Isaiah, Micah and Amos -- or Jesus Christ -- would support such policies?

Neither the Senate nor House welfare bill is an example of the good competing with the perfect. Both are fatally flawed, callous, anti-child assaults. Both bills eviscerate the moral compact between the nation and its children and its poor.

If child investments are unfairly and indiscriminately cut by many billions of dollars, there is perhaps some prospect of recouping the money over time when new child suffering becomes apparent, as it did after the Reagan cuts and as it will this time as pending cuts are many times worse. But longer-term and perhaps irreparable damage will be inflicted on children if you permit to be destroyed the fundamental moral principle that an American child, regardless of the state or parents the child chanced to draw, is entitled to protection of last resort by his or her national government. If any piece of the framework or cornerstone of the laws -- AFDC, Medicaid, family and child nutrition -- is dismantled, we may not get them back in our lifetime or our children's.

What a tragic step backward for America when so many children already are left behind. Both you and I know that there are lessons from American history, including the end of Reconstruction, when the immoral abandonment of structures of law and equity led to decades of setbacks for powerless Americans and battles we still are fighting today. What a tragic irony it would be for this regressive attack on children and the poor to occur on your watch. For me, this is a defining moral litmus test for your presidency.

We cannot heal our racial divisions or prepare our nation for the future unless we give poor black, brown and white children a healthy and fair start in life. These pending block grants will make that task so much harder. Together with the proposed tax policies, they widen the income gulf between America's haves and have-nots. You have spoken too eloquently and worked too long for children to wipe it out with your signature now.

It is nonsense for congressional leaders to argue that they are protecting children from a future debt children did not create by destroying the vital laws and investments children need to live, learn and grow today. That is the domestic equivalent of bombing Vietnamese villages in order to save them. It is moral hypocrisy for our nation to slash income, health and nutrition assistance for poor children while leaving untouched hundreds of billions in corporate welfare, giving new tax breaks of over $200 billion for non-needy citizens, and giving the Pentagon almost $7 billion it did not request.

The Children's Defense Fund wants welfare reform. But we want fair reform that does not pick on and hurt children and that provides parents jobs and safe child care. We want reform that prepares our children for the new millennium -- not reform that pushes them back to past inequities within and among states.

We want to "end welfare as we know it." But we do not want to replace it with welfare as we do not want to know it. We do not want to codify a policy of national child abandonment.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt correctly said: "Better the occasional faults of a government that lives in a spirit of charity than the constant omissions of a government frozen in the ice of its own indifference." Every president since FDR -- Truman, Ei\senhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush -- preserved the minimal national guarantee of income assistance for poor children. It is a precedent I hope and trust you will uphold. What was right and compassionate in FDR's day is right today and will be right tomorrow.

There is an even higher precedent that we profess to follow in our Judeo-Christian nation. The Old Testament prophets and the New Testament Messiah made plain God's mandate to protect the poor and the weak and the young. The Senate and House welfare bills do not meet this test. The writer is president of the Children's Defense Fund.