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Making allowances for Jeb Bush

For all of his political success _ and anyone who makes it all the way to the White House has been politically successful _ George Bush never quite managed to shake the image of a pampered preppie who was out of touch with the economic concerns of ordinary Americans.

Now the former president's son, Jeb, is running for office for the first time, and he has set his sights high: He wants Gov. Lawton Chiles' job. And while the younger Bush has some obvious attributes that could make him a formidable contender, his early campaign efforts suggest that he may share his father's biggest political liability.

Speaking in St. Petersburg last week, Jeb Bush made some pertinent points about the failures of our welfare system on the state and national level. He noted that the current system too often creates "a cycle of dependency" that may actually discourage some recipients from seeking work or continuing their educations.

However, he detracted from the seriousness of his message when he tried to link his thoughts on welfare to his own experiences as a youngster in the Bush household. When he was a child, he said, he was rewarded for good behavior "by a hug, by a pat on the back, maybe I got an extra quarter for my allowance."

That may work fine in privileged neighborhoods where children typically are surrounded by two loving parents and all the material comforts they desire. But it has little relevance to the lives of most of Florida's poorest residents. Tens of thousands of children don't have a parent available for hugs or pats on the back. And children living in Florida's most depressed pockets of poverty may not be familiar with the concept of an allowance.

Florida's welfare system is overdue for fundamental reform, but the architects of those reforms should be aware of, and sensitive to, the real conditions in which the state's poorest residents live.

The gubernatorial election is still more than a year away, and if Bush really wants to make welfare reform an integral part of his campaign, he has plenty of time to prep himself on the subject.