Human-needs specialists are always talking about our national Band-Aid approach to crises.

We don't do much in the way of prevention. We tend to wait until people are in trouble before we help them.Once we've dealt with the immediate crisis, we tend to walk away. We don't provide follow-up, opting instead to see if the people we helped will have another crisis and need our help again.

Those specialists maintain that some problems, like substance abuse, wouldn't recur with proper after-care.

Financially, though, we're barely able to provide the crisis intervention. Spending money to prevent problems that might occur is almost impossible, when you consider we don't have enough money for the problems that are occurring.

But times are changing a little. The federal government has finally built a longed-for bridge.

Under the Family Support Act, families that receive Aid to Families With Dependent Children are eligible for 12 months of transitional child care when they find a job that allows them to get off welfare.

The act also provides a Medicaid bridge. For a year after a family leaves the welfare rolls, it has medical coverage.

It's going to make a big difference to a lot of families.

In the past two years, I've talked to dozens of people who receive welfare. And I've learned that welfare sometimes becomes a self-perpetuating trap. A welfare grant doesn't provide enough money to even reach the federal poverty level. But there is a little security for poor families. People on AFDC are categorically eligible for Medicaid.

That coverage is important.

We're talking about single-parent families that are sometimes on welfare solely because they have to stay home with young children. They simply can't afford to pay for child care or medical coverage. They are stuck.

Some of the people who are on welfare might be able to find a job, but without training and education it would likely be a minimum-wage job with no benefits. An illness or accident could wipe out the entire family financially.

So could the cost of child care. Without the new bridge, too many families would be unable to afford to work.

Talk about a disincentive.

The child care is not a freebie. The families in transition have to contribute to the cost of the child care on a sliding fee schedule. The more they earn, the larger the portion of child care they pay.

These provisions - a real departure from past policies - can make a difference to people. Finally, the government is taking a step to help people not only leave the public assistance queue, but to provide them with the tools to succeed at it.

To receive child care, the family must have children who are under age 13 or who are physically or mentally unable to care for themselves. Care may also be provided if a child is under court supervision.

The child care is provided only for families that have lost AFDC eligibility because of employment. The family must have been on welfare in at least three of the six months before the family became ineligible for AFDC.

A parent who requests the help - and it must be requested - has to cooperate with state officials by providing the information needed to determine eligibility and fees.

If a child-care recipient quits working without "good cause," the child-care benefits will end. The state has a big say in what constitutes "good cause." But an example might be an illness or the termination of a child-care arrangement. A parent can also leave work if he or she is unable to find child care. A family emergency can qualify.

The state can end the child-care arrangement if the parent won't cooperate with the Office of Recovery Services in establishing and enforcing child support payments from a non-custodial parent.

If a family becomes ineligible for one of those reasons, the bridge will be closed but not torn down. Eligibility can be re-established during that 12-month period if the participant finds a new job.

Implementation is still in the early stages, and bugs are being worked out.

But to people who have longed for prevention instead of bandages, for help to become independent instead of rules that promote dependence, this is a very hopeful - and helpful - step.

It takes away a reason to stay on welfare. And provides a helping hand to families that want to thrive.