Sunday, December 1, 1996
Let's see if politicians
really care for kids

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Whenever politicians want to prove what adorable elected officials they would be, they drag out their kids.

Hamilton County Commissioner John Dowlin had them giggling and weeping as background music for his TV ads. Bob Dole even dragged his daughter out of mothballs.

Chelsea Clinton stood right next to her dad during his train trip over the bridge that Bob Dole thought of first but that everybody agreed connected up something or other that voters were supposed to care about.

That symbol got sort of confusing. But we were never confused about the symbolism of politicians and children.

We like people who like kids.

So, now it's time to see if we care about kids enough to hang tough when they're a little more expensive than we thought they'd be.

Not poor enough

Last week, parents all over Hamilton County were told they're not desperately poor enough for child-care assistance. These families - 1,454 of them with 2,290 children - are working people.

They are paid more than $6.25 and less than $8.17 an hour. Many of them are perilously new to this working life, their connections fragile. They are the beginning of welfare reform - getting off the dole and on a payroll.

They have been receiving vouchers to help with child care while they're at work. If we pull the rug out from under these people it will qualify as the trifecta of government: cruel, stupid and expensive.

OK, forget cruel. Forget I even brought it up. Let's just think about the stupid, expensive part. Everybody with a pulse has noticed that throwing money at people doesn't help them learn how to make it on their own.

But welfare reform is a project like remodeling your kitchen. It will take twice as long as we thought and cost three times as much. It took awhile to become such a mess, and it needs more than a cosmetic fix. The problems are structural.

We are going to have to depart, as the contractor might say, from our original estimate. We may even need some upgrades.

The county faces a $5 million deficit in the state-supported program that finances child care for those who have left the welfare system. In other words, Hamilton County had too much of a good thing: 6,000 people went from welfare to work since January 1995.

Lots of these folks were able to go to work because they had help with child care. They did not have to leave them with a friend of a cousin twice removed.

They could take them to a place like Discovery World in Queensgate. I spent some time there this week, so I'm probably not the most objective observer of this day-care center.

Getting the work habit

I saw 170 little souls who were learning and having a good time. Mostly from the West End, they were safe, supervised, well fed and knew they were there because their mom or dad was at work.

That has got to be worth a lot to the rest of us. This is the beginning of real welfare reform, little kids seeing somebody go out and work for what the family has. It surely must be the beginning of self-respect for everybody in the family.

''Our kids go on to become successful students,'' said Jim Rees, who runs Discovery World with his wife, Helen, a former teacher. Meanwhile, their parents are working and paying taxes.

''Turning the tide of welfare dependency more than justifies a few years of higher costs for support services, which would be offset by declining welfare rolls,'' Hamilton County Commissioner Bob Bedinghaus said in a letter to Ohio Gov. George Voinovich pleading for help with the shortfall.

(Note to Mr. Bedinghaus: If you keep acting like this, we will have to quit calling you a politician and start noticing that you have become a public servant.)

As for the rest of our elected officials, this will be a good test. We have seen you hugging your own kids during an election year. Let's see how you treat somebody else's children now that you're in charge.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax at 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.

Published Dec. 1, 1996.