I spent a day in the neighborhoods of Chicago last week. I saw a lot of good being done. I kept wishing that Ronald Reagan were with me.

What I saw:

* A group of teen-age mothers -- living in a public housing project where gang shootouts and apartment bombings occur almost every day -- who meet regularly to learn how to be better mothers and providers. One of the girls has already found a job with AT&T. Another is nearing completion of a tough word-processor training course. Another has learned computer programming. A fourth has returned to school after the birth of her child.

* An 11-year-old boy who has been selected as the youngest of 30 youth leaders who supervise after-school homework and recreation at a community center in a multi-racial neighborhood behind the old Chicago stockyards. His two older brothers are heavily involved in dope and gang warfare, but he is determined to follow a different course, and his supervisors at the center rate him "super."

* A young man enrolled in a demanding 10-month course to learn to be a precision screw machine operator -- a skill in such demand that he has already been promised a job starting at almost $7 an hour.

* An elderly woman who said she used to feel lonely and depressed all the time but now keeps happy and busy helping other elderly people with infirmities -- and the families they live with -- at an adult day-care center.

* Happy children singing songs in the bright, clean rooms of Headstart and day-care programs operating within the otherwise grim walls of a devastated public housing project.

* A former welfare mother now working full- time for a camping program that gives entire families and individuals of all ages the chance to spend a week in the country enjoying themselves, helping to run the camp and learning to help each other.

* An inner-city neighborhood in which all the housing units are in apple-pie order, the grassy areas are lush and clean, and residents work together to keep things that way.

Ronald Reagan appreciates anecdotal evidence; I offer him mine. All these upbeat scenes were made possible by the people who work and volunteer for Chicago Commons Association. At the age of 90, Commons is one of the oldest of the settlement houses that made the city of Chicago a pioneer in the field of social work.

Social work has acquired a somewhat dubious reputation in recent years as something that -- with all the good intentions in the world -- was tried and failed. Perhaps that has been true in other areas and organizations. But if the simple relief of human distress and the encouragement of human grit and resilience count for anything, you couldn't call programs like Commons' a failure.

Now and then, when someone told me how a Commons activity made his or her life better in big or little ways, I'd find myself wondering if what I was seeing and hearing was for real. Had these people been sent over from central casting to talk about how grandma used to make everyone miserable before the Englewood Adult Center lent a hand? Or how they never could have gotten their act together and found a job without help from the "Parents Too Soon" program?

Assuming I wasn't the victim of a well-orchestrated hoax, I'll offer some thoughts on why these programs work. The most obvious reason is the people who run them. Frank Seever, executive director of Commons, is a man with an endless supply of good will and good ideas. As he showed me around, he bubbled with plans to link up new services -- day care, health care, tutoring, sewing classes, even window-shade production for public housing -- with new sources of funding and new ways to engage communities in their own rehabilitation.

Like most other good leaders, Frank Seever has attracted good helpers. Rick Caddell, for example. A PhD in physics and philsophy of science, he managed to persuade skeptical employers to participate in designing and supervising the successful screw-machine training program. "I'm a very conservative person. I don't believe in something for nothing," one business owner said. "Rick made the program credible."

Good people aren't easy to reproduce. But they don't seem to be in short supply in Chicago anyway. Perhaps that's because Seever builds his programs on the universally appealing idea of self-help. Most of Commons projects -- housing rehabilitation, adult and child day care, tutoring and other social services -- rely in a major way on "natural leaders," people to whom other people in a neighborhood turn for advice and help when times are tough.

Every area, no matter how impoverished, has natural leaders. Commons has found that these people are also the best source of ideas on what new services are needed in a locality and how they can best be run at low-cost. It also finds, not surprisingly, that people value services and benefits more if they feel some measure of responsibility.

Conservatives -- and almost everyone else -- will like the self-help aspect of the Commons programs. But they are likely to overlook another essential ingredient: federal money. Every Commons project, from Headstart to job training to housing redevelopment has Treasury money flowing through it.

So, in fact, has almost every other successful social program in the country, whether it's run by private voluntary organizations or state and local governments. The full impact of the budget cuts of the last four years is only now being felt, as the last housing and recession aid money in the pipeline runs out. Doing good is going to be much harder in the future in Chicago and everywhere else. That's something for Congress to keep in mind as it considers the still deeper social-program cuts being asked by the administration.