TO MOST OF US, national security means protection from external enemies -- other countries or terrorists. But there is another kind of national security -- the well-being of a country's citizens.
And how do we rank in terms of our domestic national security?
Consider American mothers and their children. Among other industrialized nations, we have the highest rates of maternal and child poverty. The mortality rate of our children under the age of 5 is shared by Croatia and Malaysia. We are 54th when it comes to access to health care for women and children. And only four other industrial countries fail to guarantee paid leave from work to new mothers.
In other words, when it comes to mothers and children, we don't even rank among the top 10.
Ann Crittendon, the author of "The Price of Motherhood," has looked at just one county in Iowa, smack in the middle of the American Heartland, where 18, 320 kids live in poverty, 5,500 eligible children have no health insurance and 680 children live in homeless shelters. Though no foreign enemy has attacked Iowa, this sure seems like a threat to our national security to me.
The Bush administration's decision to beef up the military and enact tax cuts is shrinking our public institutions. Even during the Great Depression, libraries stayed open. Yet, today, librarians all over the country are protesting local budget cuts that are closing the doors to the growing number of people who seek access to books, newspapers, magazines, and most important, the Internet.
Public education is suffering as well. President Bush, who promised to "leave no child behind," failed to include increased funding for school districts in his 2003 and 2004 budgets.
As a result, the dream of returning California's schools to their former glory has all but vanished. We see the damage right here, in the Bay Area, where our public schools are teetering on the edge of financial insolvency, forced to cut courses, increase class size and lay off teachers.
At the state level, where law requires that budgets be balanced, governors are laying off prosecutors, releasing inmates, reducing health care to the poor and eliminating shelters for the homeless.
In California, officials in cities and counties are holding their breath as they await the grim truth about California's staggering budget deficit.
Starving public programs and services, of course, has always been the goal of the Bush administration. Behind the rhetoric of compassionate conservatism is a methodical plan to unravel the New Deal, the social contract forged 70 years ago that placed a safety net under mothers with small children, the infirm, the ill, the elderly and the unemployed.
Through a brilliant public relations campaign, this administration has managed to convince ordinary middle-class, working families that huge tax cuts (targeted to the wealthy), ending the estate tax and a gigantic federal deficit will improve their lives.
But it won't. These same people need public schools for their children, health insurance for their families, home health care for elderly parents, state universities for their college-age kids and Social Security for their retirement.
Gutting our public institutions and programs encourages a greedy individualism and erodes a sense of the common good -- the exact opposite of what our born-again president says he values.
We need brave voices that will trumpet our need for a stronger domestic national security. Rep. Richard Gephardt's proposal to scrap the 2001 tax cut and use it to offer universal health care is an important start. But we need many more elected representatives to counter the Bush juggernaut, before the proverbial public well runs dry.
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle