Despite some healthy development and helpful federal policies, the nation's distressed cities are still losing ground economically and politically.

That somber assessment comes from Robert C. Embry Jr., assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development, as he winds up four years as a feisty point man for federal urban aid.

"I am more concerned now" than in 1977 "that the basic problem of America's distressed cities is not being addressed," Embry said in a recent interview. American society is generally unwilling even to discuss the predicament of "landlocked" cities with large concentrations or poor people, weak economics and heavy dependence on local tax revenues, he said.

Embry's concerns about old cities reflects his roots in Baltimore, where he was a go-getting housing commissioner. He believes that the much-publicized downtown revival and middle-class reinvestment in Baltimore, Boston and some cities are very healthy, but not enough.

Moreover, in the national terms the back-to-the-cities movement is "very small and limited," Embry said. "If you look at the Scrantons and Harrisburgs, or the Buffalos and Camdens, there's almost no reinvestment going on.

Measured by a number of gauges, including percentages of poor people, crime rates, teacher-pupil ratios in public schools and unemployment rates, poor cities generally are "poorer and their poor are poorer" now, he said.

Embry advocates basic restructuring of federal programs to help the urban poor gain mobility, to ease central-city burdens and to reduce tax and other disincentives to living and investing in struggling communities.

For instance, he favors federal tax incentives for private investment anywhere in distressed cities. While endorsing the principle behind the Kemp-Garcia plan, which President-elect Ronald Reagan backs, Embry opposes restricting tax breaks to limited "enterprise zones."

While frustrated by what he calls a general "lack of will" to restructure public programs, Embry does see some gains in the past four years. r

First, HUD has begun "very tentatively" to use some Section 8 rent certificates to help low-income city-dwellers who want to move to suburbs, he said. Embry advocates expanding this effort, which relies on existing housing and thus causes much less "public commotion" than trying to build subsidized units in suburban neighborhoods.

Second, Congress and most communities have accepted HUD's view that community development block grants, which amounted to $3.7 billion this year, should be used mainly to help lower-income people and neighborhoods.

The third, after much wrangling, the Carter administration did establish an overall pro-urban policy. Embry regards that as "an accomplishment in itself," even though it is "greatly tempered by political realities" and federal facilities and procurement have been redirected toward cities much less than he would like.

Embry also noted modest progress toward reviewing the inadvertent effects of federal aid and avoiding projects that could hurt established communities. One success came in Charleston, W. Va., where HUD and city officials opposed construction of a major highway interchange for a new suburban shopping mall.

The shopping center is being built downtown, bolstering the city and saving energy, farmland and federal funds, Embry noted. In general, though, he said that urban-impact reviews were "never seriously addressed."

In contrast, the fourth item on Embry's list, the Urban Development Action Grant (UDAG) program, has stimulated private investment in ailing cities even more than its designers had hoped. The fast-moving program is "almost unique," Embry said, in requiring definite private commitments and in forcing local officials and investors to hammer out joint development plans.

Despite soaring interest rates, only 5 percent of the more than 700 approved action grant projects have fallen through, Embry said. Where he expected each federal dollar to generate $3 or $4 of private money, the actual ration has been nearly $6 to $1.

Especially at first, the action grant program came under fire from neighborhood conservation groups and preservationists who, for somewhat different reasons, criticized what they saw as a bias toward large downtown commercial projects and construction instead of reuse. Embry's response has been that action grants have helped to save many old structures and districts, and that demolition and displacement have been "infinitesimal" compared with that of urban renewal.

Embry, mayors and preservation groups did reach procedural accords this year. Neighborhood groups have been somewhat mollified as more nondowntown UDAG projects, including many with housing components, have gotten under way. Yet the broader concerns and frustrations of low-income urban groups remain, both in stagnant cities and in those where reinvestment is rife.

Middle-class housing renovation and speculation can be "a problem as well as a blessing," Embry acknowledges. In cities such as Washington, Boston and San Francisco, where poor people have been displaced, HUD has encouraged local officials to use federal aid to help low-income residents stay in changing neighborhoods or to ease relocation strains.