The very word rightly conjures up images of vulnerable, precious, innocent human beings who require and deserve the care and protection of the adults around them. And that may largely explain the rapid rise in federal government spending on children's programs in recent years, and why it is politically advantageous to frame new government initiatives in terms of what they will do for America's children.Yet a study by the Pacific Research Institute's Project on Children shows federal government pro-grams of the past several decades have not helped America's kids.

Federal spending on children has increased in terms of 1997 dollars 240 percent in the past 20 years, and the level of children's poverty today is 16 percent when non-cash benefits are factored in. Yet in the late 1960s, before this dramatic increase, child poverty rates were 15 percent (even before non-cash benefits are included) and had been falling steadily for decades.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, many key indicators of children's well-being such as overall health, diet and infant mortality rates are dramatically improved from what they were decades ago. But most of those advances occurred earlier in this century, primarily because of improvements in basic hygiene and better agricultural technology, and long before the massive government expenditures on children.

So there is little to show, according to the Pacific Research Institute, a San Francisco-based public policy group that promotes personal responsibility, for the fact that the federal government today operates more than 150 programs directed specifically toward children at an annual cost of over $50 billion. (This doesn't count programs like food stamps, Medicaid and housing assistance.)

With the number of children served by government programs, the magnitude of the initiatives is consistently expanding even to the absurd.

Georgia Gov. Zell Miller, for instance, recently implemented a program that provides every newborn in the state with a classical music cassette or compact disk!

In fact, the politics of children are that almost any program that centers around them becomes a popular one, such as last year's plan to massively expand health insurance for children - and later, its advocates hope, to adults. But of 70 million children in America only 1.3 million lack health insurance because of cost. (Private child-only policies range from $58 to $66 per month.)

Nor does lack of health insurance mean lack of access to health care. For starters, the federal government already operates countless health-care programs aimed specifically at children. Finally, research shows that even free health care wouldn't necessarily improve kids' health since for many children lack of initiative on the part of their parents is a bigger barrier to health care than cost.

Still emotion won the day, and a $48 billion 10-year program to expand health care to kids through matching grants to the states became law.

This is one example of what Project on Children director Naomi Lopez means when she says that "much of the public debate surrounding children's issues has focused on sentiment rather than logic. The billions spent annually on children's programs have done little more than encroach on the lives of children and families."

Lopez cites a host of other government initiatives that her research shows fall into this cate-gory, such as the Job Training Partnership act, Team Nutrition Grants, Head Start and the Foster Grandparents Program, for starters.

These and other programs may actually harm children. If not always directly, certainly in terms of taking billions of tax dollars out of the pockets of America's families, placing expensive burdens on future generations, and helping to break down families by removing from many parents the fundamental sense of personal responsibility they should have for their children.

Over the next two years, the Project on Children will seek to provide lawmakers and the public with information on the true status of children in the United States, and on non-government ways to improve it. Particularly, they'll look at the fields of health care delivery and education and lowering the family tax burden so each family can have more resources to address its own unique needs.

But if nothing else, the Project on Children will have served a valu-able purpose if it can counter today's prevailing political sentiment and show that in fact it does not take a village, and the village's money, to raise a child.