By LIZ SIDOTI, Associated Press Writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) - President Bush took his campaign for welfare reform to a community center on Friday, saying that Congress needs to keep flexibility in mind for the states when it reauthorizes legislation this year designed to help people move from welfare to work.
"It's essential that we always remember the importance of work in our society," he told those at St. Stephen's Community House, an agency in one of the city's poorest neighborhoods that helps people receiving public assistance find and keep jobs.
He said states need to be able to determine what type of support services their citizens need.
Democrats say Bush's proposal to increase work requirements for those receiving cash assistance would run counter to a central element of the 1996 welfare reform law -- allowing states to decide how to get people from welfare to work.
St. Stephen's, along with five other nonprofits in the Columbus Federation of Settlement Houses, works with the Franklin County Department of Job and Family Services to provide job training, child care and counseling.
Bush called St. Stephens "a living example of the flexibility in the welfare law."
He also stressed the need for government to help moms and dads stay together and raise their children.
The president pointed to Melvin and Ronda Tuggle who credit the nonprofit organization Accountability and Credibility Together in Cincinnati with bringing their separated family back together.
"It brought a lot of closeness back to my family," Ronda Tuggle, 29, said before Bush's speech. "Now, I feel that I am a role model for my children. I never felt that before."
The couple has three young children. She earned her high school equivalency degree through the program, enabling her to get a job and get off the welfare rolls. She's now a custodian for the Cincinnati Public Schools and she and her husband are back together.
Bush visited the 83-year-old community center before attending a fund-raiser for Gov. Bob Taft at a downtown hotel that is expected to raise more than $1 million for Taft's re-election campaign.
About 25 protesters, including members of Ohio Young Democrats, were outside the hotel demonstrating against increases in college tuition. Bush and Taft are Republicans.
At least 100 people, many from the Legislature and Ohio Department of Job and Family Services, filled a small gymnasium inside the center on Friday morning for to hear Bush speak, following a private round-table discussion he held with local officials and welfare recipients.
Nationally, last year about 2.1 million families were on assistance, down from 5.1 million in 1994, when welfare rolls peaked. There are about 200,000 people on welfare in Ohio, 25,467 of them in Franklin County.
The Roman Catholic church established St. Stephen's in 1919 on the city's south side to help immigrants from Italy, Germany and Hungary.
In 1965, the center moved to the eastside Linden neighborhood, a poor area that has become home to a large population of Somali immigrants and a recent target for development.
The center's $4.4 million budget is made up of county money and private donations. It serves about 22,000 people annually.
In June 2000, the Columbus Federation's centers began offering more detailed employment programs because of the partnership with the county. Since then, the programs have received nearly $2 million from the county and have helped 3,200.
Half of the clients are under age 30, have children, don't have a high school diploma or equivalency, and have exhausted welfare benefits.
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)