The most striking aspect of poverty in America today is the poverty of ideas about solving it. This need not be so.
To be sure, it is a persistent and complicated challenge. Yet some steps clearly can be taken, both in the short and long run, which ultimately will alleviate it.
The poverty issue includes both the legacy of yesterday, and the hint of tomorrow. Both can be dealt with using the choices of today.
To many Americans the reemergence of poverty as a national issue might come as a surprise. When President Johnson declared his ''War on Poverty'' in 1965, 17 percent of Americans were poor according to government statistics; the figure quickly sank and remained at about 11 percent until the late 1970s, when it again edged upwards. Now the Census Bureau reports 15 percent of Americans (about 34 million people) live in poverty - the highest percentage since '65.
The Reagan administration points out that official figures don't include non-cash payments; if they did, the administration points out, fewer people would be considered poor. That is true. Yet the upward trend would remain, and the figures still would be higher than at any time since the late 1960s.
The most difficult aspect of today's poverty problem to solve is the result of yesterday's deficient education: due to inadequate education many of today's adult poor temporarily are unable to master the more complex tasks of today's workplace. Many are functionally illiterate. They need retraining.
Many of tomorrow's potential problems are clearly preventable. A top priority must be given to improving those schools predominantly attended by children of the poor, and especially by the minority poor. Good education takes time, but it remains the surest way out of poverty. And it is in poorest school districts that US public schools are the weakest. Needs include: to raise expectations of teachers and school administrators; to see that ancillary needs (such as hunger) are met; and to provide access to that soon-to-be-indispensable tool of tomorrow , the computer, which is four times more likely to be available in affluent as in poor schools.
Yet to prevent poverty one step is more important: the nurturing of the family. The US Census Bureau noted last month that some 45 percent of all American families in poverty are single-parent families headed by women; for both black and Hispanic families the figure is about 55 percent. Government policies need to be rewritten so that they actively encourage a family to stay together; nowadays some still provide financial incentives to families in poverty to split apart. Merely providing welfare to maintain families in poverty threatens to create a permanent class of poor.
More than government directives toward families needs to be changed. Society as a whole must stop the self-defeating denigration of the family, and must continue the apparent trend of support for a strong and stable family, as indeed for other traditional American values of religion and morality.
Needed now is to help the poor lift themselves out of poverty, while temporarily providing public assistance. An important step is providing government-financed day care so young poor mothers either may continue their education with the ultimate aim of obtaining a job, or else actively seek employment. Many impoverished single-parent families are headed by young mothers. Day care aid works; a Florida study found that 50 percent of families who were provided child care so that they could seek jobs found them and went off public assistance. This should be done because it is right; but it also is far less expensive for the taxpayer in the longrun.
Day care facilities and financing need to be provided so that high-school-age unwed mothers, can continue their education.
The poor want to escape poverty. Many not-poor Americans still splendidly volunteer to help them, especially by feeding them, and with other services.
The poverty issue is not prominent during these early days of next fall's political races.
Needed now is to put the alleviation of American poverty once again on the national agenda. Caring solutions are possible. And the public must move carefully, resolutely, and thoughtfully to bring them about.