Thursday, March 19, 1998
Dab of money should bring healthy return

BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

This is a good one, my fellow overtaxed citizens. And I just wanted to make sure you didn't miss it.

It is not a huge amount of money - $118,000. Well, not huge in government terms, but I suppose it's huge in regular-people terms. Certainly in human terms, since it means medical care for as many as 23,000 children. Not children in a depressed foreign country. But right here. In Bridgetown and Greenhills and the West End and Newtown. These also are not children who need help because their parents are too lazy to work.

This is a plan hatched by public servants, doing - if I may say so - what we elected them to do. Refreshing, don't you think? They are using their heads to get us out of a mess they didn't create. And the money they are using didn't even come out of our pockets.

The mess is decades of welfare. And the solution is putting people to work.

More fun than stadiums

I am sitting in the office of Hamilton County Commissioner Bob Bed- inghaus, gushing about what a good job he is doing on this. (This is not our customary relationship.) He is friendly and helpful, and I am hoping maybe he has forgotten that I generally refer to the new football stadium as The Bob Bedinghaus Taxatorium and Testosterone Center.

No such luck.

''This is a lot more fun than zoning or even'' - here, he pauses meaningfully - ''stadiums.''

The official words are welfare reform or maybe welfare to work, devolution of government, if you want to be really wonky. Whatever we're calling it, it really means thousands of lives that will be changed forever. And every time this bloated welfare elephant takes another lumbering step toward the boneyard, we discover a new wrinkle.

The latest one is that a lot of ex-welfare recipients are taking jobs with employers that do not offer health benefits. Which brings me to Mr. Bedinghaus and the gushing.

Catastrophe averted

In the fall of 1996, parents in Hamilton County making more than $6.25 an hour but less than $8.17 an hour were told they were about to lose child-care assistance. This would have been a guaranteed way to return a lot of nouveau workers back to the welfare roles. ''Turning the tide of welfare dependency,'' Mr. Bedinghaus said in a letter to Ohio Gov. George Voinovich pleading for help, ''more than justifies a few years of higher costs for support services, which would be offset by declining welfare rolls.''

Catastrophe averted. The county not only got the money it needed back then, but the state now has a surplus of money for subsidized child care. And the county wound up with a surplus of its own, a modest nest egg collected from private sources.

''Having a sick kid is just as dangerous for a mom who is trying to keep a job as lack of dependable child care,'' the commissioner says. So the county asked the contributors to allow him to use the money, which had been earmarked for day care, to go after $1.1 million in federal money available to uninsured children of the working poor. Advertising. Cutting red tape. Mailings. Forms.

And it turns out that the same kind of people who would like to help provide a safe place for kids to be while their parents are learning how to work are the same kind of people who would like to help them stay healthy. Gradison Division of McDonald & Co. Securities, Kroger, WKRC-TV and Procter & Gamble Co.

A dab of money, carefully invested. Even if you don't like children, surely you would not want to live surrounded by people who are desperate and poor. You don't really want your own kids to continue to fork over money to support people who have no prospect of supporting themselves, do you? This is the way the safety net is supposed to work. And it's the way government is supposed to work.

In human terms.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call 768-8393 or fax 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. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com

PULFER ARCHIVE