In my Sept. 10 op-ed article, I suggested that "underclass" is a sloppily used term, which has turned into the latest euphemism for the undeserving poor -- those who are said to be so lazy, promiscuous and otherwise morally deficient that they do not deserve our help to escape from poverty.

Mickey Kaus {op-ed, Sept. 18} thinks "underclass" is a useful term, however. But he defines it in so many ways in his article that he proves one of the points I was trying to make in arguing against the word's use.

Still, the dispute between Kaus and me is not really about words but about policies for ending poverty. Kaus insists on the old American custom of blaming the poor for their shortcomings on the assumption that this will force them to behave properly. If they impress us with their morality and then wait to be helped, we may choose to give them that help. This approach may make us nonpoor feel good, for if some of the poor are immoral, then we must be moral. Moreover as long as some of the poor remain bad, we do not have to do anything for them and can devote scarce public funds to ourselves.

Needless to say, immoral people can be found at every income level, though there may be more immoral behavior among the poor. However, blaming the poor for being immoral will not end either poverty or the antisocial and criminal behavior associated with poverty. Most of that behavior is caused by lack of decent jobs and incomes, racism (in the case of racial minorities), desperation and despair -- for except in the movies, immorality is not a cause of human behavior. Until the actual causes of poverty are dealt with, it will not disappear. The same is true of poverty-related crime.

I share Kaus's interest in "replacing welfare with work," especially because many studies show the poor want to have decent jobs. So far, however, I have seen no realistic plans for creating such jobs and for funding the needed day care. What I'm after is effective anti-poverty programs, whether ideologists call them liberal or conservative -- and an America in which no one is mugged, because no one feels the need to mug.

-- Herbert J. Gans