'Social programs" are about as popular these days as typhoid fever, and in some quarters, in fact, they are treated very much like a disease. "Get rid of them, they never worked anyway," is the handy argument for excising them from the federal budget, and there isn't anybody around who doesn't know a good story about waste in them.

Just for a seasonal change of pace, how about a story of something that's working?

It is a rehabilitation project for low- and moderate-income people in Arlington that, when fully renovated, will put 64 households, including two handicapped persons, in good, clean housing. The renovation is being done by Whitefield Commons Inc., an affiliate of the Wesley Housing Development Corp. WHDC is a nonprofit developer sponsored by the United Methodist Church of Northern Virginia to increase housing opportunities for low- and moderate-income people.

WHDC purchased the complex, which is near the Buckingham section of Arlington, for $1.1 million, and renamed it after George Whitefield, one of the founders of the United Methodist movement. Money came from Arlington County, which put up more than $1 million in jobs bill and community development block grant money, and $1.4 million was raised from the sale of tax-exempt bonds. Rehabilitation is costing an average of $26,000 per unit. Rentals will be subsidized under the federal Section 8 Moderate Rehabilitation Program, so tenants will pay a maximum of 30 percent of their adjusted gross income for rents and utilities.

A walk around the complex is a lesson in what can be done. Buildings that have yet to be renovated are pockmarked by broken doors and windows. Some apartments have had to be entirely gutted, all have had to be rewired and many have had flooring entirely replaced. The apartment that is currently being used as the construction office has a tiny kitchen, with a small, old stove and sink.

Veda Watts, the project coordinator, leads the way into an apartment that is being renovated. Open ceilings reveal new duct work for heat and air conditioning. An open floor in the bathroom reveals wood -- underneath where the bathtub is going -- that has been eaten away by termites. "There's a surprise under every brick," she said.

Energy-conserving windows and heat pumps are being installed in each unit, and each unit has a self-contained water heater, which encourages tenants to control their costs, because they pay for utilities.

Three buildings have been finished; front doors are painted bright red and are framed in white. The hallways are painted in two tones of gray, with new, modern mailboxes near the steps. Christmas decorations are entwined down the banister in one building. Toys and Christmas decorations adorn many of the windows.

Martha Toms lives in one of the renovated units. She opens the door to a delightful one-bedroom apartment, with a modern kitchen and parquet floors that sparkle, and light streaming through the windows, even on a gray day. The apartment is spotless except for her bed, which is piled high with clothing she has collected for needy children.

Toms suffers from severe forms of arthritis and diabetes. She had worked in hospitals but was forced to stop in 1975 because of her health. She is separated from her husband of 34 years and lives on disability and Social Security payments. Following recent surgery on her knee and spine, she has taken up walking and is up to four miles a day. "It's not curable," she said of her illness, "but I'm not in a wheelchair." She says she has lost 60 pounds and no longer takes medication for pain or diabetes.

"This," she said, gesturing around her, "has just made a new lease on my life. I don't have the stress I had. I feel worthy, and I'm helping other people." Her Social Security payment was recently raised by $11, and she has pledged to give $14 a month to St. Jude's Hospital to help treat children with cancer. She also helps care for an 80-year-old neighbor who had a stroke. "This was the beginning. I just started back," she said. "This is like a dream house to me, the answer to my prayers."

"Social programs" helped Martha Toms get back on her feet, and she, in turn, is able to help others. Good will toward men is no empty seasonal phrase for her. When the budget cutters reconvene in January, perhaps they could take a walk through Whitefield Commons and meet her. It's not far from the Capitol, even though, given the spirit of the times, it may seem light-years away.