IN the shadow of high-stakes budget politics, the Bush White House is engaged in a search for how to apply a conservative, market-oriented approach to antipoverty programs and social services. The search has been quiet, and President Bush cannot yet claim a major new program to his credit.
Yet antipoverty experts who have dealt with the White House acknowledge the administration's sincerity - in contrast with the general disinterest seen during the Reagan years.
Bush increased efforts last month by giving the leading new-ideas champion in his Cabinet, Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Secretary Jack Kemp, charge of a new task force to develop antipoverty initiatives and review existing programs.
Mr. Kemp has been prodding the administration to launch a serious war on poverty under a conservative Republican flag for months.
Some conservatives see the new Economic Empowerment Task Force as added White House endorsement of, and a new platform for, Kemp's ideas.
This fall, Kemp plans to develop a ``very ambitious'' antipoverty agenda, from drug policy to taxes, says Thomas Humbert, deputy assistant secretary for policy at HUD.
``Secretary Kemp is by no means interested in dusting off old ideas,'' he adds. Kemp envisions the Republicans competing directly for the Democratic Party's strongest constituency - the poor.
``A debate over how to increase the wealth and opportunities of the poor plays to the strengths of our party's Lincoln wing - our most authentic roots,'' Kemp said in a speech in June, outlining a proposed war on poverty for the 1990s.
White House aides who will work with Kemp say the new task force is to ``go out and restructure programs.'' It has a ``fairly radical intent,'' says one.
The philosophical direction of the White House is toward empowering the those who need services such as welfare or public housing with the power of choice. This means taking power away from centralized government bureaucracies in favor of market-style flexibility and diversity.
The favorite model is the policy of ``choice'' in education, where students and their parents can choose any school in a public system, and the schools compete for students and the funding that follows them.
Choice champion Polly Williams, a Wisconsin state representative, is written into many of President Bush's speeches as a favorite example.
This approach is why the White House backed child-care credits for working parents rather than the direct government subsidies to child-care providers that were proposed in Congress; credits empower parents rather than child-care agencies. This is also why Kemp favors policies that promote ownership by public housing residents; it empowers the people that public housing serves.
But the Bush child-care proposals, like many of Kemp's proposals in housing, have been hung up in the budget squeeze that has gripped the legislative process for nearly a year.
So far, the White House antipoverty effort is mostly philosophical. It has a bigger arsenal of buzzwords - market forces, choice, empowerment, decentralization - than actual programs and policies.
So far, notes social policy analyst Douglas Besharov of the right-of-center American Enterprise Institute, White House policy planners have few new concrete policy ideas.
``My sense is what they are groping for is a whole new paradigm for the administration of services,'' says Dr. Besharov. ``I would describe where they are as deeply committed to wanting to do something,'' unlike during the Reagan years where he says antipoverty policy was largely neglected.
Antipoverty experts both inside and outside the Bush administration acknowledge some broad consensuses in American public thought.
On one hand, a deep skepticism pervades conservative and even liberal thought that government programs are making any progress at all in solving major social problems.
The temper of the times, says Besharov, is that government programs ``ought to be doing better with what they have before spending more on big new programs.''
On the other hand, most conservatives agree with liberals that the American economy should be underslung with a social safety net.
Conservatives of the Kemp stripe carry that accord further - that conservatives should make the defeat of poverty a top priority.
Robert Poole, president of the Reason Foundation, a libertarian conservative think tank in Santa Monica, Calif., admits that conservative notions of fighting poverty developed a bad name during the Reagan years. The Reagan White House never took them very seriously, he says.
``It makes people think this is just conservative window dressing,'' he says.
Bush has so far displayed better intentions than his former boss, but has brought little activity to the antipoverty front, according to poverty analysts. Kemp appears ready to push the Bush commitment to a test with his bolder ambitions.