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Federal nutrition program: motherhood shortchanged?

THE Department of Agriculture's Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants, and Children has won a special place in the hearts of Congress since it was established in 1974. Its budget has grown from less than $90 million its first year to more than $1.5 billion. Though the program has not reached all those who qualify for it, it has been simple to administer and has called forth no charges of fraud or waste. Thus WIC, in theory part of the ``discretionary budget'' subject to congressional adjustment each year, is in practice politically untouchable. After all, who wants to vote against motherhood?

The Agriculture Department does, apparently.

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The department hired Dr. David Rush of the Albert Einstein Medical College in New York to conduct a five-year, $5 million study of the effectiveness of WIC.

The study did not give the program ``straight A's.'' It did not find, for instance, consistent evidence that WIC increases the birth weight of infants. But it gave indications that the program has done some things well -- helping to reduce the rates of premature births and to increase the survival rates for infants.

The Agriculture Department's press release on the report played down many of these positive findings; Dr. Rush called the release ``incomplete and potentially misleading.'' Moreover, the department eliminated from the report the plain-English summaries of the findings.

No matter how herculean the task of coping with demands on the federal budget, programs must still be considered on their merit. Granted, even a government program for feeding needy mothers and children should not be exempt from having its effectiveness scrutinized. The administration, however, should not play down the results of its own study just because the President is philosophically more comfortable handing out money by the fistful for defense than sharing it modestly with children.

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