I'm short, but eye to eye with Europe nevertheless, because Europeans put resources where it does the most good, the health and welfare of their people.

Excuse me while I celebrate, just for a moment, the news that American men and women aren't growing as tall as they once did.


Why do I celebrate? Because by 1959 it became evident that I would be short. I watched the bodies of my peers grow two or more inches a year while mine struggled to gain half that or less. I'm not officially a little person, but close enough.


I've got the name my parents gave me, of course. But as far as my friends and schoolmates were concerned, I was ``pipsqueak,'' ``shorty'' and ``peewee.'' I suppose I should be grateful that my younger years occurred before the days of Peewee Herman.


People with short stature, both men and women, have more than their share of social and practical problems. Figuratively and literally, everyone looks up to tall people. If you're short, well... it's just the opposite.


And everything, from clothing to kitchen counters, is sized for those of ``average'' height. Perhaps now grocery stories will lower their shelving, and there will be a better selection of petite clothing.


The news that Americans are no longer the tallest people in the world isn't anything to celebrate, though, because it means our physical stature is dropping right along with our political stature in the world.


How can we be THE superpower when our friends across the water tower over us? The Netherlands, according to Burkhard Bilger, writing for The New Yorker, ``has become a world of giants.''


Here are the figures: United States men: 5 feet, 9 inches; United States women: 5 feet, 3 inches. Netherlands men: 6 feet; Netherlands women, 5 feet, 7 inches.


For the first time in 200 years, according to the Annals of Human Biology, Americans are dwarfed by Europeans. And it's not just the Netherlands, it's most of Europe. The United States has gone from having the tallest to having the shortest population in a relatively short period of time.


Why is that?


Some studies suggest Europeans eat better than those of us living in the land of milk and honey because we'd rather eat a Twinkie than an apple. And our food is loaded with additives and preservatives.


Is it possible that junk food isn't only making us fat, it's making us short? Is it possible that even so-called nutritious food, because of the pollutants and chemicals it leaches from the ground, stunt our growth?


John Komlos from the University of Munich and Benjamin Lauderdale from Princeton University, writing for Social Science Quarterly, believe the problem is even more serious than that.


``We surmise that the health systems and high degree of social security in Europe provide better conditions for growth than the American health system, despite the fact that the system costs twice as much,'' they conclude.


Europe has universal health care so the medical needs of children are met when they need it most, during their growth years, and a welfare network generous enough that recipients aren't struggling to put food on the table.


Compare that to the United States, where 15 percent of the population has no health insurance and where welfare, increasingly difficult to obtain and limited to what is entails, provides barely enough for survival.


Interesting, isn't it?


For years we've watched quietly while the U.S. government chipped away at a welfare system once considered the best in the world. And we've mostly stayed out of the debate on universal health care while businesses, many making record profits, eliminate company-sponsored health insurance.


What do we get for our inaction? Short shrift. It costs more to let American children suffer than it costs Europeans to ensure their citizens, even the poorest, prosper.


It's funny, in a warped kind of way. Over the last 25 years, presidents and congressmen have said the United States couldn't ``afford'' welfare, housing subsidies, low cost child care and educational opportunities, universal health care, and a host of other social programs that grew our nation. But we can spend an incredible $12 billion a month on war.


The result: We're shrinking.


I'm short, but eye to eye with Europe nevertheless, because Europeans put resources where it does the most good, the health and welfare of their people.


Deb Gauthier of The MetroWest Daily News (Framingham, Mass.) can be reached by e-mail at dgauthie@cnc.com.