Everybody agrees the poor should get off welfare and go to work. One problem: How do the poor get to work, since they live mostly in cities and the new jobs are mostly in the suburbs?

The solution: Government should help the poor buy cars, say Margy Waller and Mark Alan Hughes in a newly released study sponsored by the Progressive Policy Institute and Public/Private Ventures, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit.

Government policymakers love public transportation but have a "blind spot" when it comes to cars, Hughes and Waller argue. That's too bad, because mass transit offers the poor little more than a "ticket to nowhere"--buses and subway lines often don't go to the suburbs, and extending mass transit to the suburbs often means sacrificing needed service in the city. Public transportation also gobbles up tax dollars; fares rarely cover even half the actual cost of a bus or subway ride, they claim.

States should change current welfare laws that penalize the poor if they own a car. They also urge that federal and state money be used to help the poor buy automobiles. Some states already use tax dollars to help the poor get auto insurance, obtain their driver's licenses and pay for car repairs and traffic fines.

ADDENDUM: PPI recently welcomed back Waller, who served as the think tank's senior analyst for social policy before leaving in 1998 to become senior director of public policy for the United Way of America and director of policy development for Public/Private Ventures. Now he's senior fellow for social policy.

NEWT WATCH: Eyebrows rose all over the American Enterprise Institute as word spread about AEI senior fellow Newt Gingrich's latest part-time job. The former House speaker recently was hired as a consultant by the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp., better known as Freddie Mac, a government-backed corporation that provides billions to finance mortgages to middle-income Americans.

One problem: As an institution that pledges allegiance to free markets, AEI is the sworn enemy of Freddie Mac and its sister institution, Fannie Mae.

In fact, one of Freddie and Fannie's most prominent critics works just four doors down from Newt: Peter Wallison, an AEI resident fellow and general counsel of the Treasury Department under President Reagan.

Wallison recently headlined an AEI conference on Freddie and Fanny, arguing that the government should stop indirectly subsidizing Fannie and Freddie to the tune of $6.5 billion in 1995--only two-thirds of which ever makes it into the mortgage markets, he said.

He also notes that Freddie and Fanny have quietly managed to acquire many influential friends in both parties. One way is through campaign donations--$1.3 million in soft money in the last election cycle. Another is by putting out-of-office politicos on the payroll--people like Gingrich.

Wallison declined to comment on Newt's consulting gig. "I really can't," he laughed. "I really shouldn't. Newt is free to do what he wants."

THINK TANK CLOUT: The Heritage Foundation is the most influential think tank in Washington, but the Brookings Institution is the most credible, according to a survey of congressional staff and journalists.

The survey of 71 Capitol Hill staffers and 54 Washington-based journalists in late 1997 was conducted by Andrew Rich, a doctoral student at Yale now finishing up a yearlong fellowship at Brookings. (No, Brookings didn't buy its way to the top--Rich completed the survey before he applied for the fellowship.)

Based on more recent interviews, Rich speculates that the rankings would not have changed much in the past year and a half.

"People commented on Capitol Hill that Heritage . . . is an organization that signals for other Republicans where they might want to be going," Rich said.

Heritage ranked ninth in credibility out of the 27 well-known tanks selected for the study. The top five in each category--influence and credibility--follow:


1. Heritage

2. Brookings

3. AEI

4. Cato Institute

5. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities


1. Brookings

2. RAND Corp.

3. AEI

4. Council on Foreign Relations

5. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Rich trades his desk at Brookings this week for a lectern at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, where he will teach politics.

NORTH TO ALASKA: The Freedom Alliance already has an idea for your next summer vacation. "Join Freedom Alliance founder and honorary chairman Lt. Col. Oliver North and a host of other conservative leaders on an Alaskan cruise in August 2000," reads the announcement on the alliance's Web site. The alliance is calling it the "Conservatives at Sea Conference." But presumably not adrift . . .

Have news about think tanks, policy-oriented foundations or nonprofits? E-mail it to ideas@washpost.com.