Maybe America, newly mean-spirited, has stopped caring about poor people, including small children and their troubled families. But I don't think so.

What has happened, I believe, is that large numbers of Americans no longer believe that the programs they are asked to pay for make any real difference -- except to make things worse. For them, demands for still greater outlays are taken as an invitation to pour yet more of their hard-earned tax dollars down ever bigger rat holes.

The evidence is on their side. Leaving aside such obviously successful programs as Head Start and magnet schools, most of the programs designed to help the poor aren't working very well. Outlays for prenatal care seem to have made no discernible difference in infant mortality rates among the poor. Ballooning school expenditures have not noticeably improved public education for the poor. Public housing budgets may increase, but so does tenant abuse of public housing -- and homelessness. Welfare seems as likely to perpetuate poverty as to alleviate it.

What are we doing wrong?

One part of the answer is that we have forgotten to treat poor people as full-fledged human beings, preferring to chop them up into their component problems, with an agency (usually underfunded and ineffectual) to deal with each component. Mental health specialists don't talk to housing specialists; welfare bureaucracies are only marginally involved with schools; child welfare agencies often treat families as adversaries, not as the setting in which children are most likely to flourish.

That's why I am so excited by a new monograph from a Washington-based Education and Human Services Consortium -- "What It Takes: Structuring Interagency Partnerships to Connect Children and Families With Comprehensive Services."

The 55-page monograph, written for a consortium that includes leaders in welfare, social policy, education, politics and business, begins by showing how fragmented are the services for poor families, with little cooperation among agencies and virtually no collaboration. Then it looks at some existing collaborative models and offers recommendations -- and an opportunity for feedback -- on how to improve the delivery and effectiveness of services.

It's hard to argue with the description of what happens now. Services are mostly crisis-oriented -- designed not to prevent problems but to deal with problems that have already occurred. Agencies not only fail to collaborate; they seldom even cooperate, except in terms of pro forma referrals. Often they are outright rivals, competing for scarce public funds. Even some of the most expert service professionals are hampered by the absence of support services that may be the technical responsibility of a separate agency.

One quote summarizes the dilemma: "To expect a single community worker to master the whole array of available resources that relate to potential youth needs may seem overwhelming. However, to expect a youth-in-crisis or his/her often-stressed parents to negotiate, unassisted, the maze of agencies, programs and eligibility rules in order to get the help they need is truly to ask the impossible."

The monograph (written by Atelia I. Melaville of the William T. Grant Foundation Commission and Martin J. Blank of the Institute for Educational Leadership, and available at 1001 Connecticut Ave., NW, Suite 310, Washington, D.C. 20036-5541) calls for full collaboration at both the service delivery level and the system level "to knit a truly seamless web of services."

The present practice, say the authors, is for agencies "to concentrate on a single solution to a specific problem -- focusing on their own narrow objectives -- rather than working together toward a common goal that addresses the range of situations contributing to a family's problem or standing in the way of its resolution." If I have any criticism of this excellent paper, it is that it focuses almost exclusively on improving the delivery of government services and hardly at all on the importance of strengthening communities in order to prevent or ameliorate problems before they come to agency attention.

The great unintended consequence of the way we address the social problems of the poor -- by parachuting in the experts, in Robert Woodson's phrase -- is its deleterious effect on local leadership. The home-grown problem solvers -- the men and women who live in the community and who care about its residents, not as collection of problems but as people -- can be the glue that holds communities together. Undercutting their authority by eliminating their problem-solving role can reduce neighborhoods to assemblages of clients rather than competent, self-healing communities. Indeed the service-delivery improvements envisioned by the authors of the monograph could exacerbate the weakening of this natural leadership.

Perhaps we'll get smart enough to include these natural leaders -- whether as staff, consultants or unpaid volunteers -- in the collaborative effort recommended by "What It Takes."

Excellent services and adequate funding are important in fashioning remedies. But healthy communities capable of rearing healthy children in healthy families can prevent a lot of the problems in the first place.