The trouble begins with the term "True need." It is condescending, unpersuaded, vaguely "Oh, yeah? Show me"--a term that tends to push a supplicant to the wall. "True need" suspects a hoax or at least a deplorable want of effort. So you can only qualify for the government-provided blessings that flow from proof of this condition with some corresponding loss of dignity: here, look for yourself at the mess that is my (family, body, life). Inspect the kitchen, the bedroom, the medical records, the receipts. I just can't do it by myself--honest.

Before we had "true need" and the "truly needy," we had "poverty" and "the poor." I remember thinking, in the mid- 1960s when these became operative words, how refreshingly simple, direct, respectable, even classic they were. No more "disadvantaged," "underprivileged" and the rest of that disgusting bureaucratic pack. "Poverty"--right out of the Bible and Piers Plowman, it said what it meant.

And yet, it seems to me that in recent times there has been a change for the worse in the way this term is employed, too. "Poverty"--its very down-through- the-centuries quality lends a connotation of permanence and hopelessness to it as a condition. "You have the poor always with you" is the idea, but at first this was invoked only by right-wing antagonists of the Johnson administration's efforts to fight poverty. Now I sense a comparable belief in some quarters on the other side. It suits their new opposition politics and their self-image as affluent champions of the poor: the poor had better always be there to be championed. Any suggestion, in fact, that the lot of any of them has been improved meets with great scorn.

What we are having in the 1980s, in other words, is not a war against poverty, but rather a war about poverty.

Who are the participants in this war? Practically all of us who are not poor, so far as I can see. But some, alas, are much more active combatants than others. And they are identifiable by their philosophical predilections. For one side, almost parodied by some of the dandied-up conservative rich, Ben Franklin (as distinct from Che Guevara) is the founding authority. There's not a one of his complacent little maxims that doesn't seem to them applicable to those currently in need.

A long line of American politicians has been a part of this tradition. They are the ones who, viewing the bleakest social landscape the South Bronx or Appalachia has to offer, invariably are moved to recall their own early deprivations and subsequent success, offering this up as a useful inspiration to their sullen audience. The message is, variously: what a wonderful country we live in; see, if you would just work a little harder you could do it; I got mine, you get yours.

All this rests on some mythic assumption of classlessness, of a wholly benign economic environment in which one racial or ethnic or economic or professional group never owes its good fortune to the miseries of another, of a kind of simple, linear upward mobility available to anyone who sets out to achieve it. Good-news stories are taken as the norm. God bless you, Tiny Tim.

For such people there can be no built-in predicament or situation that could hold back anyone. And certainly there cannot be a large amount of economic hardship requiring the governmental equivalent of the doctor's heroic measures. To believe otherwise would be unbearable. As it is, however, the assumptions are seen as justifying not only great economic disparities, but also a kind of weird pep-rally pride. You too, the losers and the lost are informed, could one day be at the top of the heap.

Unfortunately, much of the sound, sensible protest against this and the agitation for a more reliable system of aiding the poor are overshadowed by dilettantes on the other side--Beautiful People liberals and some who ply that tax-exempt, eminently deductible and free-food-at-the- conference life that goes with ministering bureaucratically to the poor. I can't remember who said, apropos of this burgeoning industry, that "there's money in poverty," but he was right.

Still, in some of their distracting argument you sense more than that: you sense self-satisfaction, moral pretentiousness, a club to beat the opponents with, a different kind of justification for one's privilege from that called forth by the conservative right. It's enough, in these circles, to bleed for the poor (whoever they may be); you surely don't have to become one of them. So the poor remain a useful abstraction, attractive and imposed-upon victims in the aggregate, except when they insist on such disruptive practices as praying publicly or displaying some racial prejudice, whereupon they become some other much-denounced group.

Will you permit me to reach in here right now and fish Bill Moyers out of any suspicion of being part of this group? I don't think he belongs here. I think there is, given the character of the awful argument, a positive need for journalistic exploration of what is or isn't going on among poor people in America. And I guess I should also provide the self-evident reservation: far from all Reaganites or liberal celebrities or do-gooders or rugged individualists or medianiks fall into these categories. But too many do, and I think the argument over the condition of the nation's poor people now going on has taken on its infuriating, aimless quality precisely because the positions put forward by these people are so self-interested, so self-indulgent, so suspect.

Surely at a minimum this much can be conceded on the one side: government has become too big and meddlesome. There have been extravagance and cheating on social programs that could be curbed. Inflation was a killer of the poor. And on the other, this needs to be conceded: the Reagan program is hurting very poor people. Public aid is justified and necessary to help them, all of them. This should not be made contingent upon degradation to a condition of desperation. It should be automatic. We are the richest country on earth.

Other advanced countries have real safety nets and programs that go into effect to proect the health and well-being of citizens faced with either sudden or chronic adversity. It is incredible that we should have to be trotting out our most hard-luck citizens and saying, "Step right up to the camera, little lady; show them your scars."