HOW can a society best help the downtrodden, the poor, those left out of full and healthy membership in their communities?
The answer to that question has gone through fundamental changes since Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, introduced in the 1930s. And it is going through another fundamental change. The riots in Los Angeles only added some urgency, perhaps briefly, to an evolutionary shift already underway.
Some programs that help those in need are returning to some of the values more common a century ago - from states requiring work in exchange for welfare, to drug treatment that involves an addict's entire family.
Some liberals are ready to become more hardheaded about the need to break the cycle of welfare dependency. Conservatives are taking more of an interest in making the system work. Time limit on welfare
One prominent sign of change: Bill Clinton, the standard-bearer of the Democratic Party - the party of the New Deal and the Great Society - supports a two-year limit on how long a family can receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).
"The middle ground now is what was unacceptable four years ago," says Doug Besharov, a social policy expert at the American Enterprise Institute.
Before the New Deal began what became the `modern' welfare system, the needy depended on charity that came largely from religious organizations. Charity was extensive enough a century ago to aid nearly every immigrant who arrived at the port of New York, says scholar Marvin Olasky of the University of Texas.
Traditional charity was more than economic aid - it sought moral reformation as well, says Mr. Olasky. At missions for the homeless, able-bodied men were expected to chop wood and women to sew, at least partly for their own good. Entitlement programs
The New Deal brought government in as a major player. But the public jobs programs such as the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps were still built around the work ethic. "We've come a long way from that," notes Alan Wolfe, dean of sociology at the New School for Social Research.
The 1960s brought a transformation in how society defined its social responsibilities. Government welfare programs were vastly expanded but no longer stressed the values of those in need. They were called, instead, entitlement programs.
Through the wrenching civil-rights battles and other upheavals in social mores, Americans were developing a keener sense of the role that racism and other social practices played in creating poverty. To many policymakers, blaming poverty on the values of the poor appeared mean-spirited and irresponsible.
The backlash against this view has been building through much of the past decade. A core of welfare recipients have fallen into long-term dependency. Waning political support has shriveled real welfare benefits an average of 41 percent since 1971, and they are being cut further nationwide.
The welfare system as we know it, says the Urban Institute's Isabel Sawhill, "is no longer politically viable. The public has given up on it." She suggests creating a new one more supportive of the values of work and family that people care deeply about.
The entitlement era was based on the notion that "the poor are just like us; but they don't have enough money," says Dr. Besharov, paraphrasing obversely Hemingway's epigram on the rich. But, he adds, "it's not exactly true." More than money is needed
After years of dependency, it takes more than money or a handy job opportunity to bring some people into productive membership in society.
Dr. Wolfe says that traditional charity treated welfare as if there were only one party to the contract - the giver. The same is true of the entitlement era of welfare, he says, only the recipient was the contracting party.
"What a lot of people are trying to get at right now is how to make it a two-way street," he says. Designing programs, and even spelling out the philosophy, will take years, he adds.
Organized compassion still takes many forms. Volunteerism and traditional charity, the kind the White House encourages in its Thousand Points of Light program to honor volunteers, is still active and an important bond in many communities. The entitlement programs are still operating. And new ideas are beginning to spread.
But neither liberals nor conservatives trust each other yet. In many cases, talk of responsible child-bearing and the work ethic justifies old-fashioned budget cuts without regard to the impact on the very poor. Liberals can still use the language of values to simply argue for more spending.
The latest direction in federal welfare policy concerns time limits. Under one proposal currently before Congress, a woman would be eligible for four total years of AFDC in her lifetime, with a one-time exemption for a child under three.
It might serve as a kind of shock treatment, abruptly breaking the cycle of dependency. It might lead to progress or to desperation. No one knows.