It is easy to discredit the White House attack on "failed" welfare programs. Within 24 hours of press secretary Marlin Fitzwater's statement blaming social programs for the conditions leading to the Los Angeles rioting, newspapers across the country already had spotted the logical flaws -- programs that work, such as Head Start; welfare reforms passed in the late 1980s; the fact that Republican presidents have controlled the White House for 20 of the past 28 years. President Bush simply continued to compound the errors upon his arrival in Los Angeles.
Other conservative critics make a better case. Charles Murray, author of "Losing Ground," says the White House erred in implying that specific, unnamed programs were to blame. Mr. Murray argues that the riots can be traced to the entire system of programs, which created a society of people encouraged to take no responsibility for their lives -- socially, in school, or the criminal justice system.
But the debate over the White House's facts, or lack of facts, is less interesting than the similarly shaky subtext, which plays to the racial fears and resentment instrumental in the last three presidential elections.
"Welfare," said Barbara Reisman, executive director of the Child Care Action Committee, "is the Willie Horton of this year's election."
The hidden messages rely on popular myths about welfare programs. That they were created primarily for inner city blacks, for example, who then used the interlocking system of financial support, Medicaid and job training programs to abdicate any responsibility for their lives. "We coddled them and they turned on us" could be one translation.
But welfare is not a black, inner-city phenomenon. In fact, as documented by Jacqueline Jones in "The Dispossessed: America's Underclasses from the Civil War to the Present," the poor in this country are overwhelmingly white and living outside central cities.
Consider these statistics, culled from the 1990 U.S. Census and used in Ms. Jones' book:
* Poor whites outnumber poor blacks by a ratio of more than 2-to-1.
* Texas, South Dakota and Missouri combined accounted for one-half of the nation's 150 "worst hunger counties."
* Black female-headed households in rural areas were more likely to fall below the poverty line than similar households in the inner city.
Ms. Jones concedes that blacks are disproportionately represented among the poor, but says that fact alone cannot account for the middle class fascination with stereotypical images of inner city ghettoes.
"President Bush is not addressing the historical roots of poverty in Los Angeles or any other place," Ms. Jones, a history professor at Brandeis University, said last week. "There is a racial card here, and we know George Bush is a master at playing this card and pandering to the middle class."
And the middle class is eager to be pandered to on this particular subject, Ms. Jones said. "People objectify the poor. They assure themselves the poor are very different from us, that they inhabit the recesses of society."
Instead, Ms. Jones argues, the problem facing the poor is neither cultural nor racial, but one of economics and politics. Over the past 25 years, the most pressing problem has been the erosion of unskilled and low-skilled jobs.
Ms. Reisman, part of a nationwide effort to monitor welfare programs, said those jobs that have been created often pay less than welfare benefits.
Over the past decade, "60 percent of the jobs created pay less than $7,000 a year," she said. "Now there are two ways to look at it that. You can say welfare benefits are too high, but I think the glass is half-empty, and wages are too low."
Gary Burtless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, also sees the lack of jobs for unskilled workers as the real problem. "The wages paid now are lower in real terms [compared to the late 1960s], and the number of families likely to become destitute is higher."
According to Mr. Burtless, a 30-year-old high school drop-out earns about 25 percent less today than his 1960s counterpart. The high school graduate doesn't do much better.
"It's really harder for people to earn enough to live today," he said. "That's the dominant fact that has raised the sense of despair in South Central Los Angeles."
And President Bush cannot blame this trend on the policies of the late 1960s and 1970s, Mr. Burtless said. Wages shrank faster the past 12 years than in the 1970s.
"This cannot be laid at the door of President Johnson, President Reagan or President Bush," he added, citing a similar erosion of wages in Canada and Europe. "But the lack of a public policy response can be laid at the door of the recent administration. They had options, and they didn't take them. Their attitude is laissez-faire."
In at least one sense, Mr. Burtless said, public policy has &L; exacerbaated the problems of unskilled workers. Because of United States immigration policies, he said, natives are competing with immigrants for the smaller number of low-skill jobs.
And, just as blacks are disproportionately poorer, their incomes continue to lag behind whites.
Andrew Hacker, in "Two Nations," writes: "Measured in economic terms, the last two decades have not been auspicious ones for Americans of any race. Between 1970 and 1990, the median income for white families, computed in constant dollars, rose from $34,481 to $36,915, an increase of 8.7 percent. During these decades, black family income barely changed at all going from $21,151 to $21,423.
"In relative terms, black incomes dropped from $613 to $580 for each $1,000 received by whites."
Furthermore, Mr. Hacker writes, there are poor whites, but no interest "in depicting poor whites as a 'class.' " Meanwhile, the black underclass also is more visible, because 60 percent live in inner cities, while the white poor are almost equally divided among the city, suburbs and non-metropolitan areas.
These facts may not mean much as long as images of the Los Angeles riot are burned into the minds of voters throughout the country. However, Christopher Jencks, a Northwestern University sociology professor, believes the Bush campaign would be smart to let the welfare issue drop.
"I don't see the spot commercial yet," said Mr. Jencks, author of "Rethinking Social Policy: Race, Poverty and the Underclass," and a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation in New York City. "It doesn't add up to a big issue."
Raising the issue also would focus attention on how little the Bush Administration has done for poverty programs.
"The more attention that is drawn to these issues, the more apparent it becomes they have done nothing about them," Mr. Jencks said. "Whatever people think, they think George Bush is for the rich. . . . I can't see the Republicans have a lot to gain by dwelling on Los Angeles."
Even some conservatives see the issue as having little staying power. There is simply no interest, Mr. Murray said, in attempting a drastic overhaul to the country's welfare programs.
"There will be a brief spasm of interest in the inner city, and some tired retreads of failed ideas," he said. "It's not as if there's a large economic cost from letting the inner cities go. It's not going to keep us from competing with Japan. But there is a large psychological cost."
Laura Lippman is a reporter for The Baltimore Sun.