There's this old joke. A guy is walking on a very dark street. As he nears the glow of a streetlight, he sees a drunken friend bent over and peering at the sidewalk.
"What are you doing?" he asks.
"I dropped my money and I'm looking for it," the drunken friend says.
"I'll help you look," the guy says. And the two of them wander in circles, looking for the money.
Finally, the guy says: "You're sure you dropped it here?"
"No," the drunk friend says, pointing down the dark street. "I dropped it back there."
"Then why were you looking for it here?" says the guy.
"Because," the drunk says, "there's a streetlight here and it's too dark to see back there."
This story came to mind when the Clinton administration came out with its latest plan to make us a happier, healthier society.
Recognizing that large numbers of preschool children don't get immunized against diseases, the White House came up with a new program.
It wants the federal government to provide free vaccines for every child in America -- rich, middle-class or poor.
Regardless of your income level, your child would receive the vaccines free. If you have money or medical coverage, the doctor could still charge a fee for wielding the needle. If you are poor, everything would be free.
Of course, the word "free" is used loosely in this case -- sort of the way it is tossed around by advertising people, con men and politicians.
It won't be free. The government will buy the vaccines with tax TC dollars. More than $1 billion a year. But to the high rollers in Washington, tax dollars and "free" often mean the same thing.
The logic behind this plan is that large numbers of children don't get vaccinated because the vaccine costs too much.
So President Clinton's solution is to make the federal government the only buyer of vaccine, so it could negotiate a better price. Then it would make the vaccine available to all children.
That's very warmhearted, and it's what we would expect from a lot of former '60s activists who still have their big government game plans and wish lists.
The only flaw in this solution is that it isn't addressing the real problem.
Yes, many children don't get needed immunization, primarily the vaccines that doctors recommend before the children enter school.
It's estimated that in some big cities, as few as 10 percent of inner-city preschool children get the necessary protection.
But the cost of the vaccine isn't the reason. In Chicago, for example, low-income children can get the shots free at city clinics.
In fact, they might not even have to go to clinics because medical vans go into low-income areas and offer curbside immunization service.
So what is the problem?
I know it is politically incorrect and insensitive of me to say this, but I'll do it anyway.
The source of the immunization problem is the same as in the pathetic achievements of the inner-city schools.
The problem is the same as it is with the brutal rate of murder and other violence among young people in the cities.
The problem is the same as it is with the growing rate of child abuse and neglect.
As a bumper sticker might put it: "It's the stupid parents, stupid."
Those curbside medical vans I mentioned a moment ago? The Chicago Tribune recently had a report on what they deal with. As the story said of one of the health workers: She "has been cursed at, shot at and has had countless doors slammed in her face."
Later, it said: "The vans are staffed with a public health nurse, an investigator who screens the child's records and determines what shots are needed, and [a worker] whose job it is to persuade parents in public housing to bring their children downstairs for vaccinations.
An "investigator who travels with the vans said that although the free services are literally brought to people's doorsteps, it is tough to get them to cooperate."
That's not unique to Chicago. The same kind of ignorance, stupidity and neglect can be found in many parts of this country where free vaccines are offered.
Ask a pediatrician. The problem isn't in communities where people can afford to pay and do. It's where vaccines are already being offered free.
What is the Clinton solution? Let the federal government take over and give everybody in America "free" vaccines. Even those who don't need a handout and are already taking good care of their children. And even many of those who can already get it free but are rejecting it.
Good luck. But unless the government includes a plan to somehow persuade the indifferent, hostile or ignorant parents into rare acts of responsibility, it won't work.
If that requires intimidation, so be it. Maybe these parents should be told that if they are receiving welfare or living in public housing, they either get their kids immunized by a given date or see their welfare checks and housing benefits cut off.
I'd even favor making it a criminal offense for a parent to ignore the opportunity to give a child needed immunization. If that isn't child neglect, what's your definition?
Is that harsh? Maybe, but it's not nearly as harsh as needlessly exposing a child to disease.
But if you think anything will change because the government becomes a purchasing agent, while local government still has to grapple with the real problem, I have a suggestion.
Go help that drunk look for his money under the streetlight.