By S. Anna Kondratas

UNDER DEMOCRATIC and Republican presidents alike over the last two decades, the "liberal" approach has dominated policies intended to alleviate poverty. A problem, such as unemployment among black males under 25, is identified. Evidence is hurriedly gathered and analyzed. Finally an enormous federal effort is mounted to correct the perceived problem.

In the 1960s, there was an instant diagnosis that one out of five Americans was poor. There followed quickly a "war" on poverty, at the outset of which in 1964 President Johnson confidently proclaimed that the days of the dole were numbered.

Billions of dollars later we still have the dole and we still have poverty.

True, the number of people classified as poor declined during the Johnson years, but those who attribute that to the "war on poverty" should pause to consider that poverty declined just as rapidly in the 1950s and early 1960s. The poverty rate hardly budged during the 1970s, even as spending on antipoverty programs rose rapidly.

True, too, the poverty rate began rising in recent years. But those who blame President Reagan's budget cuts ignore the fact that this trend began in 1979, under President Carter. The largest annual increase -- larger than any which occurred during the recession and budget cutting of the early Reagan era -- happened in 1980, before Ronald Reagan was president. And, in any case, Reagan may have reversed the worsening poverty trend. Census Bureau data for 1984 have not yet been released, but early projections point to a downturn.

Thus, liberals hardly are in a position to sit back and point fingers at conservatives. To focus the poverty debate on budget cuts is misleading and unproductive.

But conservatives must also do more than talk about "failed liberal policies" and the need to reduce deficits. Instead, they should take the initiative in changing the terms of the poverty debate, in order to persuade Americans that it is possible to have compassion and concern for the poor without insisting that their legitimate needs can only be met through huge federal programs. "Social responsibility" is not equivalent to "federal responsibility."

Is there a conservative "solution" to poverty? Not in the sense that there is some sure-fire conservative proposal that looks like the liberal proposals of the last 20 years. But there is a conservative approach to poverty that is far more rooted in common sense and the realities of human nature than the liberal ideas of the past.

Conservatives accept the proposition that the federal government has a role to play in setting national goals, such as reducing poverty. We are not even arguing with liberal objectives in many instances. But we disagree about the means of achieving them. In our view, the primary responsibility for extricating the able-bodied poor from poverty rests with the poor themselves, while the function of government is to help them do so.

This does not preclude federal activism in insuring opportunity. But such activism should be directed at empowering the poor to make choices, such as deciding what school they want to send their children to and what neighborhood they want to live in.

Externally imposed "solutions," such as tucking the poor away in housing projects and providing schools of abominable quality, change nothing.

Thus, a conservative poverty program starts from the grass roots. Strengthening the capability of individuals, families and communities to meet their needs is the goal.

The liberal welfare state has short- changed the poor for one, paramount reason: It has strayed from its original goal of eliminating the dole to one of income redistribution for its own sake.

Few liberals seem to recognize the condescension implicit in the double standard that has evolved. We have capitalism for the middle class (equal opportunity, competition, choice), and socialism for the poor (low-quality government services and economic guarantees irrespective of individual effort).

The results are predictable. The welfare industry benefits from the permanence and expansion of the welfare system, and so fights fiercely when it comes under attack. But the interests of self-styled poverty spokesmen do not always coincide with the interests of the poor, and benevolent bureaucratic control will never set the poor on the road to economic freedom.

The conservative agenda, on the other hand, has much to offer the poor. The fact that economic growth is the paramount conservative policy consideration is itself significant. Whereas the impact of welfare on poverty is hotly debated, the strong correlation between economic growth and declining poverty is irrefutable.

Conservatives also support market-oriented development incentives. For example, they have proposed enterprise zones in the nation's most depressed inner cities to encourage new business investment and jobs for the poor.

The enterprise zone concept seeks to address the specific problems of declining urban areas by recognizing that small businesses, particularly those employing fewer than 20 people, are the primary job creators in cities and that an entrepreneurial climate can truly encourage new businesses to start. Small businesses also tend to create more jobs for the relatively unskilled than larger ones, and thus are the right sort of economic development for depressed areas.

In contrast to many other poverty programs, enterprise zones would result in a permanently strengthened private sector and more livable communities -- thus a reduced public role in the long run. Considering that government-backed urban planning and "redevelopment" efforts have frequently broken up communities and broken down community structures, this will be quite an achievement.

Job training efforts should stress reliance on private employers to provide training. The Job Training Partnership Act, passed in 1982, has shifted federal efforts in this direction. There are two sound reasons for such a redirection. From the trainees' point of view, there is no point in training for jobs that are not there. And since employers benefit financially from a trained work force, it stands to reason that they should be willing to invest in upgrading it.

Job-training vouchers from federal or state governments could provide another alternative for motivated individuals to acquire skills. The voucher holder could choose the training program he or she wanted.

Motivation is the key. Conservative job training programs such as the Job Training Partnership Act have been accused of "creaming" -- the most disadvantaged, many of the hard-core unemployed, it is alleged, will not benefit. But creaming is the only way to begin. Unless the participant is motivated, the job training effort is doomed to failure, and there is no point in the government's running programs like that. The government may have a responsibility to create opportunity, but ultimately it is the individual's decision to take advantage of it or not. The government should not be expected to contribute to the already perverse incentive structure facing the poor by rewarding failure.

Programs such as those mandated by the now-defunct Comprehensive Employment Training Act, for example, paid stipends to individuals for simply enrolling in instruction. In addition, almost half its funds were spent on government jobs. In 1980, only 8 percent of participants in CETA public service employment programs received any on-the-job training, and only 15 percent later found unsubsidized jobs in the private sector.

This kind of program encouraged failure. It never taught the lesson that compensation depends on what a worker contributes to an employer, or that advancement depends on self-improvement.

Other liberal jobs programs, such as summer youth employment, appear to have been designed to allay middle-class fears that the idle poor are dangerous, not to provide fundamental help to the poor themselves. They were simply disquised welfare or urban pacification programs. It is difficult to understand why liberals approved of programs like this except as a matter of self-interest, because such "jobs programs" are really just poorly designed "workfare," which liberals resist.

A conservative alternative to subsidized, public-sector summer jobs would be legislation allowing employers to pay youth less than the minimum wage, as is proposed in the Youth Employment Opportunity Wage bill. Studies show that allowing employers to hire youth at $2.50 an hour could create over 400,000 new summer jobs. (Sanctions can be written into legislation that would prohibit employers from displacing permanent employes with young workers.)

Since most teen-agers live at home, the sub-minimum wage would not create hardship. It would enable teen-agers to acquire valuable work experience in the private sector where they eventually will have to compete for permanent jobs. Not surprisingly, the business community supports the plan; significantly, so does the National Conference of Black Mayors.

As for welfare, the conservative view is that government programs should interfere as little as possible with the economic incentives of a free-market economy. Policy makers should acknowledge that ultimate solutions to poverty can only come from a bottom-up approach, and beneficiaries should be involved both in the planning and execution of programs. A governmental welfare system is not an answer to poverty, but, ideally, something that facilitates the development of solutions.

This thesis is dramatically illustrated by our public housing policy.

There is no more dismaying and visible symbol of the failure of earlier approaches to poverty than the deteriorating, slum- public housing developments built primarily with federal funds over the last 25 years. These crime-ridden places have succeeded in destroying the morale and motivation of their low-income residents. Public housing today shows the futility of the liberal, "caretaker" approach. Yet a new approach that relies on the poor themselves offers hope.

The experience of tenant management organizations illustrates the superiority of a grass-roots program. Here in Washington, for example, the management of the Kenilworth-Parkside public housing project was turned over to a tenant association in 1982. By the end of 1983, according to a study by the American Enterprise Institute, operating costs had been slashed and rental income was up dramatically, resulting in an operating surplus.

The association established a thrift shop, two day-care centers, a food carryout, a co- op convenience store, a barber shop and other small businesses -- all staffed by residents. The side benefits have been remarkable. The proportion of families on welfare dropped from 85 percent to 50 percent; the incidence of teen-age pregnancy was halved and the proportion of families headed by a woman declined, as husbands began joining their wives.

We have nothing to lose -- and the poor have much to gain -- from pursuing this approach and even broadening it to encourage private ownership of public housing units by residents. Such alternatives to government management do not threaten the poor, they only threaten the bureaucrats of public housing authorities.

Reformers must recognize that competition and choice are as much of a key to efficient allocation of resources in the welfare area as any other. The federal government can play a powerful role in improving services to the poor by taking steps to encourage competitive private alternatives to government services.

Competition works well to bring quality services to the rich. Why not use it to bring quality services to the poor? And if the consumer should be king in the private market place, why not give poor people the means to exercise consumer clout, instead of forcing them to remain abject clients of the welfare bureaucracy?

Millions of people now use food stamps issued by the government to purchase food. Nobody tells them in what stores they have to use these "food vouchers," and stores compete for their business in the traditional American way -- by trying to offer good products at lower prices.

There is much to be said for providing the poor with comparable vouchers to pay doctors, landlords, private schools and other providers of services. Under a welfare system that relied on vouchers, the government would be acknowledging that it may not be the best or most efficient provider of housing, health care and education, and would be freeing poor people to look for the best deal they can get.The result would be competition to serve the needs of the poor and, inevitably, better service.

The corollary of such empowerment, of course, is responsibility. Liberals have done the poor no favor by telling them that "the system" is to blame for their problems, or by setting up ill-designed programs that make cheating easy and then expecting the poor to be more noble than the rest of us and not cheat. The welfare rights advocates should have told the poor that there are no rights without responsibilities.

It is not "paternalistic", as some have charged, to expect welfare recipients to pay their rent with the cash grant intended for this purpose and if they habitually do not do so, to give the cash directly to the landlord. There has to be an incentive to learn responsible behavior; permitting irresponsible behaviorial patterns to continue without sanctions sends the wrong signal. To the extent that they tolerate irresponsibility, our welfare programs help perpetuate poverty.

By the same token, "workfare" is not a punitive concept but, if implemented properly, a means of affording welfare beneficiaries dignity. We give welfare to farmers on an enormous scale, but this is hardly a cause of shame to them. The reason is that the public perceives farmers as performing a necessary social function.

The conservative emphasis on responsibility and self-help has recently found an echo in an unlikely place -- the National Urban League's State of Black America report. In spite of the fact that the report ticked off the usual complaints against the Reagan administration, it noted a "new spirit of concern" among blacks regarding a "host of issues that cannot be solved by government alone . . . some of our problems only we can deal with."

Even more significant is the emergence of groups such as the Council for a Black Economic Agenda, which recently met with the president. Terming the welfare system an "alms race" that "created a mass of dependent people," the group urged federal tax incentives for investment in low-income neighborhoods and small business development, education vouchers that would allow poor people to send their children to independent schools, and tax relief for the working poor.

These were not traditional conservatives speaking, but products of the civil rights movement who have become disillusioned with the gap between liberal rhetoric and performance.

The Reagan administration should take advantage of this signal opportunity. Its economic program enjoys wide public support, but the poverty issue remains a political Achilles heel. Conservatives will never succeed in dismantling the ineffective liberal welfare programs unless they offer the public a convincing alternative.

The administration has made a good start in the Treasury's tax plan, which would essentially eliminate federal income tax liability for those under the poverty line, but this idea should be advanced as part of a more comprehensive plan.

We need a new definition of poverty. How is the public to distinguish between what government calls the "poor," "near-poor" and "truly needy," or to understand why a person is eligible for reduced-price school lunches at 185 percent of the poverty line, food stamps at 130 percent, and home weatherization at 125 percent. Omnibus welfare reform legislation should call for developing a new national poverty standard.

A uniform and comprehensible welfare eligibility standard that would be applied to all programs is also essential if we are to organize the federal welfare bureaucracy according to any rational principles. Reform of the bureaucracy should go beyond "streamlining" and eliminating "fraud, waste and abuse." These are worthy goals but have seldom resulted in a redirection of efforts or significant bureaucratic shrinkage.

There are currently over 70 federal means-tested income transfer programs. They could easily be reduced to fewer than 10 and still perform their function, so far as the poor are concerned.

Significant efficiencies could also be realized by increasing reliance on block grants to states to solve particular problems, rather than expanding entitlements to individuals. Considering the relative health of state and local budgets and the fact that decentralization makes it easier for grass-roots organizations and the private sector to be involved in planning and executing programs, this would be a step in the right direction.

It is time to stop arguing about whether liberal welfare policies have "worked." Let us admit liberal intentions were good, but that mistakes were made. Mistakes will probably continue to be made. But let us at least set up a system in which we can learn from our mistakes, build on our successes and enfranchise the poor to strengthen the free enterprise system and democracy. The time is right for a conservative poverty agenda.