For James McNeil, it was a trumpet. The federal Title I program provided his rural Alabama high school the funds for a trumpet that he was loaned for free. That federal trumpet got him to college, courtesy of three music scholarships. Today, he is president of his own high-tech business.

For Arthur Smith, it was a federal civil service exam. Until he took it, he was stuck as a building guard. The exam got him a job as an accountant. Today he is a GS-13 with the Maritime Administration.

For Dwight Ford, it was the federal 8A minority contractor program. Under it, a company called Athena Technologies was established as a "Beltway Bandit" professional services firm. Athena gave Ford his first real job after college, and that led him to a high-flying high-technology career with Control Data and now Electronic Data Systems, the high-tech firm founded by H. Ross Perot.

All three of these people are black. All three tell success stories that bring a small tear to your eye. And for all three, at absolutely crucial moments, one federal program in social engineering or another appeared and made the difference, literally changing their lives and allowing them to lift themselves to the success they enjoy today.

What's more, these federally funded nudges seem undeniably to have had a multiplier effect. McNeil's daughter, Ashley, Smith's children, DeMaurice and Cheryl, and Ford's daughter, Christina, are as hard-wired into a path of education and achievement as any young people you're likely to meet. Their life paths seem virtually to guarantee that they and in turn their children will be propelled into tomorrow's upper middle class.

I come by this thinking as a result of the reporting I have been doing for the past six months on the new black middle class in the Washington area and in America. I have interviewed countless so-called Buppies, black upwardly mobile professionals. As I have collected their life stories, just about all of them volunteered stories like McNeil's, Smith's and Ford's. Sooner or later they mentioned a federal program that dramatically affected their lives.

Full disclosure: I am a true believer in the forces of the marketplace. I love Thomas Sowell's analyses. He is the black economist who makes liberals crazy by doing statistical work showing how minorities worldwide succeed or fail largely without regard to well- or ill-meant social programs.

Frankly, I have applauded some of the changes in thinking I have seen in Washington in the past decade. The conservative analysis has been convincing: the solution to a problem and the creation of a federal program are not necessarily the same thing.

The most devastating questions have been: Does the program work? Does it solve the problem? Or does it merely create bureaucratic jobs for social interveners? If the answer was the latter, the conservatives have argued, it was immoral for the government to take money out of the pockets of hard-working taxpayers to pay for such boondoggles.

Many federal programs could not look such a challenge straight in the eye, and some of them are no longer with us.

Certainly none of these programs caused the successes I have been looking at. The stories I have collected are ones of individual grit, of people grasping opportunity for themselves. Hard work. Long nights. Multiple jobs. Higher education. The whole drill. Makes you proud to be an American.

It really does.

There are also vast historical forces at work. A pent-up high-velocity gush of black ambition and frustration and drive was unleashed by the legal end of American apartheid with the 1964 Civil Rights Act. High school graduation rates for blacks almost tripled in 25 years -- a blink of an eyein historical terms. This drove those withthe guts to persevere into the heart of an economy that, as it happens, simultaneously was being transformed into one that was producing mostly white-collar, middle-class jobs, instead of blue-collar, manufacturing jobs.

One result is this new and growing middle class.

Despite all that, I want to leave a note to future historians. It's about those few lonely souls left in this town who created all those Great Society programs and really believed in them. Maybe believe in them still.

The note is this: I don't know how you would calculate the cost-benefit ratio of James McNeil's federal trumpet, much less justify it. Nor can I quantify how many more people had the same kind of experience.

But you are owed your due. Despite the views of those who would rewrite history for ideological reasons, not all that money went down the drain.

You made a difference.

The writer is a Washington Post senior writer.