LAWRENCE W. MEAD's central premise -- that persons who receive welfare benefits should be required to work in exchange for them, if they are

able -- may at first seem either unsurprising or retrograde, depending on one's point of view. Certainly there is nothing new about charges of "fraud" and "abuse" in welfare programs, or about the contention that people should not be given something for nothing; there are echoes, albeit unemotional and measured ones, of both complaints in Beyond Entitlement. But Mead is up to more complicated and sophisticated business than this; the problem with the American welfare system as it now exists, he contends, is that it violates a fundamental premise of the national ethos and that, into the bargain, it does more harm than good for those whom it ostensibly benefits.

The line of reasoning by which Mead arrives at these conclusions is complex (into the bargain his prose, alas, is often dense) and a brief review cannot hope to do justice to all its subtleties. Boiled down to its essence, though, his contention is that our society extends certain rights to all its citizens and expects them to fulfill, in return, certain obligations. Among these latter are that citizens be literate in English, that they be sufficiently educated to be employable, that they obey the law and respect the rights of others -- and that they work to support themselves and their families. But the welfare system, which offers its benefits as entitlements, repudiates the work obligation and, in so doing, encourages its beneficiaries to neglect their other obligations as well.

This welfare system is almost entirely the creation of the Great Society, as initiated by Lyndon Johnson and as extended by the three presidents, two of them Republicans, who succeeded him; over the years it has had considerable if erratic bipartisan support in Congress. It is built on the foundation laid by the New Deal, but with the absolutely crucial difference that while New Deal programs provided benefits in exchange for work, Great Society programs -- most notably the all-pervasive Aid to Families with Dependent Children -- do not. The welfare system's underlying assumption is that the problems of the poor are caused by society, rather than individuals, and that it is therefore society's responsibility to support them. The effect of these programs is summarized by Mead:

"They tended to shield their recipients from the usual demands of American society, as the New Deal had not. Because most were welfare programs without serious work or other requirements, they did not assume or enforce social functioning as the New Deal insurance programs had. So far as basic income and services were concerned, the recipients were exempted from the pressures to perform that normally emanate from schools, neighborhoods and workplaces. They were assured a secure, if depressed, place in American society almost without reference to behavior."

The consequence has been the creation of a welfare subclass, precisely what Franklin Roosevelt feared when he remarked in 1935 that "continued dependence upon relief induces a spiritual and moral disintegration fundamentally destructive to the national fiber. . . . (It is) a narcotic, a subtle destroyer of the human spirit." The fundamental characteristic of this new underclass is dependency. This is equally true whether the underclass is a black ghetto in a decaying Northeastern city or a community of white farmers in the Middle West, but there can be no escaping its disproportionately large black population. The historical explanations for the "special claims on federal attention" that black Americans command need no elaboration, but the point Mead argues with real urgency is that the system of welfare dependency is making it harder, not easier, for blacks to break out of the underclass and into functioning American society.

His conviction, which he argues most persuasively, is that this is because the welfare system is permissive, because its various programs "have given benefits to their recipients but have set few requirements for how they ought to function in return." To be sure the programs "raise the income of the needy, but they also exempt them from work and other requirements that are just as necessary for belonging" to the larger society, which is orderly and in which all citizens enjoy "the same rights and obligations as others." Mead therefore would replace the permissive welfare system with "an authoritative social policy" that would "enforce social obligations, at least for the dependent, just as political obligations are enforced for the population in general."

In other words, work should be a condition of welfare benefits for all except those who are physically or mentally incapable of it. Mead would replace the present system, in which benefits come first and half-hearted efforts to require work come second, with one in which benefits would be contingent upon work -- a system, that is, in which society's insistence on work as a condition of equal citizenship would be mandated for those who turn to society for help. As Alice Rivlin has put it, "We would like to have everyone have a minimum decent standard of living, but we would also like to see work be the main source of income for people of working age who are not sick or disabled." This reflects the prevailing American view, which is "humanitarian toward the poor yet concerned that helping them not undermine social standards."

UNFORTUNATELY, such undermining is already taking place in the underclass, with effects that wound those who live in it, obviously, but also society as a whole, because the current welfare system encourages teen-aged pregnancies, discourages stable families, fosters crime and heightens unemployment. The intentions with which the system was founded were the very best, but the results have been calamitous. Though Mead's specific recommendations for reforming it are subject to debate -- how, to mention one question he does not satisfactorily deal with, do we create work for welfare recipients that does not put them in servile roles? -- his broad argument that people must earn what they are paid is irrefutable. "Somehow," he writes, "the rhetoric of equal rights that dominates federal politics must be turned around to justify equal obligations as well." To function as effectively as it can for as many as possible, our society certainly must be humane, but it must also be orderly, civil and cooperative. It is toward recapturing those qualities in American life that Mead has directed his attention in this powerful, disturbing, important book.