You won't envy the assignment given Chester "Checker" Finn by a Minneapolis-based outfit called Center of the American Experiment: "What ought society do when families crumble, and what ought government do when children are endangered?"

But you might find yourself wishing that our social policy leadership, public and private, had the insight to see (and the guts to say) what Finn has said.

If there is a theme to Finn's response, a paper he modestly labeled "Ten Tentative Truths," it is that most of the awful things that happen to those who constitute the American "underclass" are less the result of inadequate government intervention than of their own disastrous behavior and that no government policy or program will do much good unless we can somehow induce them to change their behavior.

For instance: "We must steel ourselves to speak the truth in public places about social norms that we know to be good for children and about the malign consequences of deviating from those norms... . With rare exceptions, two-parent families are good for children, one-parent families are bad, zero-parent families are horrible.

"We know that a well-functioning society must condemn behavior that results in people having children who are not prepared to be good parents. I find it astonishing that, in the face of that knowledge, today we seem to attach more opprobrium to dropping out of school, experimenting on a cat or uttering nasty remarks on campus than we do to giving birth to what not so many years ago were called 'illegitimate' children.

"I am making a point about morality, yes, but the larger point is about honesty: Children fare better in some circumstances than in others, and no decent society will remain silent when it comes to pointing out which circumstances are which. We do this not because we enjoy sermonizing, but because if we really care about 'at-risk' children, we need to help people understand -- and internalize -- the behavioral norms that make for environments in which children thrive. ...

"To acknowledge this is not enough. We need to teach it, preach it, to persuade people of it. It's a whole lot more important to the society's future than stopping smoking or lowering cholesterol levels or recycling aluminum cans."

Yes, Finn, former assistant secretary of education under William Bennett and now on the faculty of Vanderbilt University, is a conservative, and so is Mitchell Pearlstein, his former colleague and founder of the American Experiment, who gave him the assignment.

But his analysis transcends the usual liberal/conservative classifications and zeroes in on what all of us -- at least in our private thoughts -- know to be true.

For instance: "I just don't see expansions of the earned income tax credit {a favored conservative approach} making people significantly less apt to shoot one another with assault rifles. ... Economic measures may deal with dollar poverty, but economic incentives cannot be counted on to alter antisocial behavior. ... I believe we need to promulgate -- and then enforce -- a doctrine of accountability, for parents as well as for their children. We need to be ready to impose real, material consequences on adults when they or their children deviate from behavioral norms."

The need, says Finn, is for a new emphasis on the development of "social capital": the availability of caring and trustworthy adults, the establishment and enforcement of community norms, protection from outside dangers as well as the predations of peers.

And while it is usually better to improve the situation within a child's family -- with money, parent-education and job-training program -- Finn insists that we have to recognize that it is sometimes in the society's interest to remove children from their homes, not just in temporary foster-care arrangements, but permanently. "When a family is in a condition of melt-down, our priority must be to help the children. Parents do not always know best, and their interest is not always foremost."

It's impossible in this short space to summarize Finn's paper (available for $2 from the American Experiment, 45 S. 7th St., Minneapolis, 55402) except to say that he is talking about far more than income-transfers and educational reform. He is talking about what is, in fact, an unattended national crisis:

"I am talking about kids who are at risk of a great deal more than not learning enough math, science, history and geography. They are at risk sometimes of life and limb, of body and soul, of spirit and morality, of abandonment and abuse, of drugs and poverty, of neglect and crime and prison -- and of reproducing under circumstances that make it likely that their progeny, too, will be at risk in the same ways, only perhaps worse."