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WE SHOULD BE USING SURPLUS TO ELIMINATE HUNGER, SUPPORT CRIME-PREVENTION PROGRAMS

It probably wasn't going to happen anyway. But with Bill Bradley -- the candidate of big ideas -- getting shot down in Iowa, you can bet it won't happen now.

Still, with a surplus expected to reach nearly $1 trillion -- and some fantasizing about $2 trillion -- over the next decade, it was nice to imagine that Bill Clinton might use his last State of the Union speech tonight to outline some big ideas that might actually fix the union.

Granted, that would mean leaving Al Gore behind as the one official who must remain at the White House. The Secret Service would demand that to protect the president from a would-be successor going ballistic at any mid-campaign leftward lean.

But imagine a president who, instead of pushing a poll-tested tax cut, told a well-fed TV audience he was going to end hunger.

That seems like something that would not even need mentioning in a nation figuring out what to do with the fruits of an economic boom. But a new study by the Center on Hunger and Poverty at Tufts University found that the number of Americans going hungry -- about 30 million -- is virtually unchanged from four years ago despite the surging economy.

Some of the hungry are legal immigrants kicked out of the food stamp line by the 1996 welfare overhaul. Others are former welfare recipients eligible for food stamps but who don't get them. And others go hungry because of rules like a shelter deduction that's unrealistic in some places, or a $2,000 cap on household income that might not allow for a car to get to work. Such rules create a " 'heat vs. eat' dilemma," says Ashley Sullivan, a co-author of the Tufts study.

Will Clinton aggressively push to surmount such problems, even if it takes more federal dollars? Will he make sure no one comes here to film one of those commercials asking viewers to send $3 to feed a starving person? Or will he settle for a minimalist effort and a few platitudes showing his heart is in the right place?

Similarly, will the president call for fighting crime by taking the advice of cops, or continue listening to politicians?

Listening to police would mean putting more money into prevention programs that have been shown to keep kids out of trouble. They're much less costly than prisons, and study after study has shown that kids in quality day-care or after-school programs are several times less likely than their peers to find trouble, says Sanford Newman, president of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids.

Yet Head Start -- the biggest and best-known of such programs, but hardly the only one -- still has funding for only about half the eligible kids. A proposal for fully funding that and other such preventive efforts should be one criteria by which to judge Clinton tonight.

In fact, Fight Crime has asked that some $30 billion be spent this year on education and other such efforts as a first step toward a long-term plan to eliminate the "crime prevention gap" just as Washington targeted the budget gap.

The group -- composed of some 600 law-enforcement officials and crime victims -- is hardly soft on crime. When folks like that say prevention works -- and back it up with solid research -- someone should listen. Yet it's a tough sell getting officials to buy prevention.

"Sometimes politicians want to handle the crime problem the way a gang leader would, by proving that they're the toughest ones on their turf," says Newman.

So, will the president address this problem like a national leader, or like a political gang leader?

And while the two parties jockey over a middle-class tax cut -- which could end up going mostly to the wealthy, anyway -- how substantial an effort will Clinton make to pull the lower class up from the economic divide that is getting larger, according to the recent report from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the Economic Policy Institute?

Budget center Executive Director Robert Greenstein expects a modest expansion -- about $2 billion worth -- in the earned-income tax credit that helps the working poor, and in a block-grant program to help the working poor get health insurance, which half of such families now lack. He welcomes such initiatives, yet concedes they're hardly bold efforts to eliminate poverty.

"They're relatively modest, incremental steps," Greenstein says. "They're probably all that the freight will bear in the current political climate."

And that is what's so disappointing. If the country can't aggressively attack such problems now, then when? Even if there won't be extra trillions to spend -- and Greenstein believes there won't, once accounting gimmicks are discounted -- whatever is left after entitlement reform and debt reduction shouldn't be squandered.

But despite a Wall Street boom that has taught many the value of investing, there's no bull market for investing in human capital. Instead of pandering to the tax-cut crowd, Clinton could create one tonight. But don't bet on it.

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