Exploring both sides of the issue of Reagan's New Federalism

Don't let the tastelessness of the title deter you from watching a judiciously balanced documentary about an important, basic Reagan policy. The battle over New Federalism pinpoints philosophical differences that are causing a major split in Washington legislative ranks.

In Reagan's New Federalism: Shift or Shaft? (PBS, Wednesday, 9-10 p.m., check local listingsm) you will find that public broadcasting has managed to tread a difficult line delicately. This program investigates Ronald Reagan's proposals to turn responsibility for many federally funded programs back to the states. (The title, by the way, is never repeated in the context of the documentary.)

Produced by Austin Hoyt for WGBH-Boston in association with the Institute for Politics at the J.F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, the documentary explores the attitudes on both sides of the political fence. ''The federal government should be worried about arms control, not potholes,'' seems to sum up the attitude of those who would support Mr. Reagan in his effort to reverse the trend of proliferating government-grant programs and turn much of the responsibility (if not the funds) back to the states. But, on the other hand , the documentary records the argument of those who feel that state officials cannot always be trusted to do justice to needy constituents.

The program delves mainly into medicaid, Aid to Families With Dependent Children, and food stamps. It traces the effect a cutback would have on individuals. Also investigated are proposed reductions in federal aid to injured workers, family-planning services, and vocational training for high school students. There is an attempt to listen to the pros and cons, although most of the human examples tend to make a case against the changes.

Fortunately, however, despite a lapse in judgment here and there, this documentary makes no attempt to decide the issue for the viewer. It is, in the main, content to point out the variety of problems involved.

By presenting the issues in a straightforward manner so that constituents can be informed enough to try to influence their own congressmen, ''Reagan's New Federalism'' performs a major public service. It is the kind of television program we have come to expect only from PBS.

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