It all comes down to a matter of bootstraps. The kind that you pick yourself up by. It comes down to a question of who has bootscraps and who hasn't and whether you can hand someone a pair, or help them to use the ones they have.

That's what runs like a tough, sinewy line through the new welfare-reform package that Carter prefers to label "A Program for Better Jobs and Income."

At first reading, this program does one thing superbly: It distills our attitudes toward helping the poor into a careful, effective, mathematical equation. It labels the people we want to help and how we want to help them.

We are (we have always been) willing to help the helpless, those disabled by overage or underage or illness. We are also at least partially willingness to help those who will help themselves. In our schemes of things, the people who are disabled by circumstances, especially those who want to get "back on their feet," deserves our aid.

To the helpless, then, the "reform" offers income with perhaps less hassle and more dignity. To those who'll help themselves, it offers a careful incentives package of jobs and money.

But it's the third group - neither helpless nor self-helpers in these definitions - who continue to confound us, who defy in some way a "fair accounting." The third group are the ones we define as "able" to work, but who can turn out to be "unwilling." In the Carter plan, they will be triaged out of the "deserving poor." Any of those who don't accept jobs will get the economic scalpel.

This is fair in concept. And yet, it isn't always that easy in real life to separate those who can-but-won't take care of themselves from those who simply can't. The government does what it has to do. It makes definitions based on categories of age and health. A man in an iron lung can't. A baby can't. A 42-year-old person without a visibly debilitating disease can. Or so they say.

But I have known, as we all have, people who live in the grey zone where "can't" and "won't" create confusion. I have known people who are either unwilling to use their bookstraps, or don't have any. And sometimes I haven't been able to find the "truth."

I have seen men, for example, who have been unemployed for so long that they have lost confidence in their ability to hold a job. Or is it that lack of confidence that has kept them from getting a job?

I know a woman who was in a consciousness-raising group about four years ago. Of all the women in the group she is the only one paralyzed in a state of whining about her "conditions". She "could" never make a change in her life. Or perhaps she simply "wouldn't."

Confronted with the "can't/won'ts," I have an urge to shake them, to order them to pick themselves up as if they were scattered clothes. I want to yell, "Get your act together." And I'm not the only one.

This group is a source of bewilderment to most of us. We're the people who get up in the morning and function, even on the days when we'd prefer to pull the covers back over our heads. We are thwarted in the attempt to decide who is able, but refuses to take care of himself or herself, and who is simply unable, suffering from some mysterious, invisible crippling.

Finally, we can't decide; and we treat them alike. The "can't/won'ts" are the one group society seems most unable and, in truth, most unwilling to help.

We require people who are not certifiably sick or infirm or caring for babies to support themselves. In public policy, like this welfare-reform package, we renew our commitment to help only those who are categorically helpless and those who help themselves.

We may ponder the fate of the others, but we don't, can't, won't program for them. In the end, it all comes down to a matter of bootstraps. The kind that you pick yourself up by. If you can.