Cuban refugees in Washington -- and there are about 1,000 of them--are living for the most part in rat-infested housing in high-crime neighborhoods. Some are sleeping on the streets. Why?

Most refugees, after all, get $180 in welfare and $40 in food stamps each month as well as free health care. They will continue to receive that help throughout their first three years in the United States unless the law changes. There are no fewer than six city agencies and three private organizations providing services to the refugees. One of those city agencies, the Educational Organization for United Latin Americans, has received $464,414 from the federal government to resettle 150 Cuban men here.

What went wrong? The fault lies not just with the refugees. A large part of the problem is in the federal government's approach to resettling them, and the rather muted response of the established Cuban community toward the newcomers.

While the government was careful to provide welfare and medicare benefits for the needy among the 125,000 Cubans who came in the 1980 boatlift (to the tune of $125 million so far), there has been little effort to provide them with intensive training in English and a comprehensive program for assimilation.

The former director of United Latin Americans, Pedro DeJesus, says he tried to get the Cubans in his program to attend English classes, but that many refuse to go, for no apparent reason. One would think that with almost half a million dollars to plan with, the program's administrators could find some effective way of getting the Cubans to sit for a few hours a day in an English class.

In terms of acculturation, what good is it to set the refugees up in apartments, as DeJesus' organization does, without first teaching them how to pay their rent and the consequences they will face if they do not make timely payments. (About 30 have either been evicted from their homes in recent months or are facing eviction).

What good is it to seek jobs for them if they have no incentive to work?

"Everybody in Cuba is on welfare. So all theyare doing is bringing them over here and recreating the same situation they had over there," says Miami attorney Benito H. Diaz, who is active in his city's Cuban community. "The government should give them money but say, 'Look, you've got to go to school while you're getting this money . . . You've got to earn your keep.'"

In Cuba, housing and food, albeit scarce, are provided by the government. "Cubans work hard at not working," says Orlando de la Nuez, a refugee who came in 1980 and now works 12 hours a day in a Miami sneaker factory.

But de la Nuez goes on to explain that since there is no personal income in Cuba, one way to protest against the Castro regime is through lack of productivity. The refugees transplanted here need to break their old attitudes toward government. They need a comprehensive program in assimilation where they can learn about American laws and customs and talk with the Cubans who arrived ahead of them, who can teach them how to make it in America.

Of course, the responsibility for helping the refugees does not rest solely with the government. The established Cuban community--those middle-class professionals who arrived 20 years ago-- is one of the wealthiest immigrant groups in America. Yet there are few private organizations, like Professio Inc., a Miami health-care service manned and financed by Cuban-American volunteers, to aid the refugees. For the most part, help from the Cuban community has been conspicuously absent.

Many of the Cubans who have been here since the '60s say they consider the new arrivals a blemish on their good record, since a large number of them are little-educated unskilled workers. Some even came from Castro's prisons and mental institutions. Yet the shortcomings of the minority are no reason to reject the whole lot.

It is still not too late for the Cuban refugees. With help from their own community and more practical government aid programs, these new immigrants could make as great a contribution to American society as those who preceded them.