"I've got a joke for you," the cabbie said. "Did you hear about the farmer who claimed that he had no money to feed his horse, and then turned around and hired somebody to find out why the horse didn't starve to death?"

"No doubt you've got the story all mixed up," I told him. "Obviously the farmer was either crazy or uncommonly cruel, but what's so funny about it? Where's the joke?"

The cabbie gave me his "gotcha" look and said: "The joke is, it's not a joke. Only it's not about horses, it's about people. I had a guy from HUD in my cab yesterday, and he left this RFGA--whatever that is--in the back seat."

"RFGA is federalese for Request for Grant Application," I explained. I took a look at it. "It says here that 'Among the most serious problems in central cities is that of structural unemployment, especially among minorities and youths. . . . The last two decades have seen numerous attempts to ameliorate these problems in the form of private, local, state and federal programs. The employment and unemployment statistics indicate that the previous efforts have been less than successful.' That seems accurate enough to me."

"Now read this part," the cabbie said.

I did. "It has been suggested by many writers"--I read--"that the existence of structural barriers such as the minimum wage, payroll taxes, governmental regulation, lack of work experience (caused by the preceding) and the disincentives caused by the welfare system continue to perpetuate the high rates of minority and teen-age unemployment.

"Yet, at the same time, there exists an underground economy that seems successful in providing meaningful employment to many inner-city dwellers. . . . HUD is interested in sponsoring research that will shed light on how the underground economy works, especially in relationship to employing the so-called unemployables."

I then read that HUD was soliciting proposals for grants to study such questions as how the underground economy overcomes barriers to minority teen-age employment, whether the minimum wage has any bearing on opportunity, what entrepreneurial prospects exist and "what lessons can be learned from the above that might be instructive for the shaping of federal, state, local, and private urban economic development policy and programs."

I still didn't see the joke, I told him.

"You'd see it if you were in the streets like me," the cabbie said. "Can't you just see this researcher walking up to a dope dealer and saying, 'Sir, could you tell me something about your entry into the narcotics purveying business, how long it took you to work up to this prime location and the approximate amount of the taxes you are avoiding?' Look, Mister, they've got federal suits because the Census Bureau can't even count the people in the ghetto. How the devil do they expect to get the kind of hard information HUD is talking about?"

I admitted that there might be some data- gathering difficulties, but didn't he think that the attempt might prove useful? For instance, wouldn't it be a good thing to know why a youngster can work his way up the underground ladder but not in legitimate business?

"I already know the answer," the cabbie said. "It's because the dealer or the hot man or the numbers man will give him a chance and your legit businessman won't."

Well, wouldn't it be helpful to know whether starting pay in the underground economy is below the official minimum wage?

"Let me ask you," he said. "Would you take a street hustle with no vacations, no days off, no sick leave--and a very good chance of getting busted--for $3.35 an hour?"

But wouldn't such a study prove that these youngsters are in fact employable and that the training programs have taken the wrong focus?

"A study can prove anything you want it to prove," the cabbie said. "And knowing these people, what they want to prove is that there's not as much unemployment as the figures say, and what unemployment there is is because of the minimum wage. They also want to prove that not having a legit job really is no big thing, because these people are getting over anyway. And they want to prove it in 'a reasonably short period' because there's an election coming up."

"You are a hopeless cynic," I said.

"Hey, all I'm saying is that when a tight-fisted farmer tries to find out why his horse isn't starving to death, he's not doing it for the horse.""