Congress is approaching the end of a dangerous exercise in self-delusion: that federal programs for poor children can make a large and disproportionate contribution to deficit reduction. The Gramm-Rudman "balanced budget" amendment, unless it is changed to exempt expenditures for needy children, will wreak havoc on every federal program that helps America's poor children become produc.

Since 1981 the federal government has cut programs for poor children and their families (and raised federal taxes on poor families) while keeping stability in most middle-class social benefit programs, passing huge tax cuts for the rich and large corporations, and conducting a huge defense buildup. We were told that the deficit would shrink because of this approach. Instead, we have deficits of $200 billion a year. Poor children and families had so little to begin with that four years of making them suffer has not begun to pay for even a fraction of the tax cuts or defense buildup.

Each year the growth in the cost of corporate tax loopholes is more than the entire cost to the federal government for Head Start, compensatory education, handicapped education, student financial assistance and guaranteed student loans combined. The cost of a single new destroyer is more than the entire federal education aid to handicapped children.

Now, once again, Sen. Phil Gramm and the president propose to solve the deficit by targeting the poor. A majority of Congress and a majority of Americans know this is nonsense. The only question is whether that majority in Congress will, in the little time left, assert the will to do what should be done -- exempt needy children from the cuts.

Under Gramm-Rudman in its current form, if Congress and the president do not succeed in passing a budget that gets the deficit to the levels specified by the bill -- and there is no reason to expect they will -- then the president must make "across-the-board" cuts to reduce the deficit.

But the cuts would not really be across the board, and needy children would suffer the most. First, despite the huge growth of tax loopholes and resulting lost revenue in recent years, the proposal wouldn't require closing any loopholes to reduce the deficit. It would require only program cuts. Moreover, Social Security, payments on the debt and much of defense would be exempt.

Since only half the government would bear the brunt, if the government must be cut 10 percent, children's programs will be cut 20 percent. A 20 percent cut in Medicaid could mean the end of access to physician and hospital care for 2 million children. In Head Start, where only 15 percent of eligible children are served now, 90,000 pre-schoolers would be thrown out of the program. Approximately 600,000 poor women, infants and children could be dropped from the WIC program, which provides essential food supplements to those with special nutritional needs.

The deficit is a real problem, but we will not solve it on the backs of needy children. Platitudes about rescuing our children from the future effects of deficits are meaningless if we deny children the help they need now. Slashing health- care programs, nutrition programs, education programs, every program that helps children grow into self-sufficient and pro the deficit, not reduce it.

Many poor pregnant women who do not receive adequate prenatal health care will give birth to low-birthweight babies who will need expensive hospital care. Many poor children who do not receive the education and training they need will end up unemployed and on welfare.

In the 15 years before Medicaid began, black infant mortality in the United States dropped 10 percent. But in the decade after Medicaid started, it was reduced by 50 percent. Since the 1981 budget cuts, we have started to see actual increases in post-neonatal mortality. Deep cuts in Medicaid portend more infant mortality.

Hundreds of studies conducted on the Head Start program show that, compared with other low-income children, Head Start children score better on standardized tests, achieve more in school and are less likely to fail a grade, drop out or need special education classes. Across-the-board cuts in Head Start will mean across-the-board failures and dropouts.

To cut off millions of American children from the most effective programs the government has is to condemn them -- and America -- to a future of reduced opportunity and productivity.