THE conventional wisdom blamed racism for the Los Angeles riots. But they actually seem rooted in a culture of despair beyond the reach of conventional social reform.
This is the real tragedy of Los Angeles and other American cities.
Most Democrats argue that urban social programs of the kind cut by Ronald Reagan should be restored.
But nobody knows how to cure ghetto ills merely by providing the poor with cash or services (welfare, education, training, jobs, health care, child care).
Such programs can produce results often enough to justify their costs. But none has shown a large impact on poverty.
None can emancipate poor individuals and families from the personal problems of early pregnancy, crime and school failure that shackle them.
Even to invest in the lives of children, as Head Start does, produces only marginal improvements in coping with problems later in life.
The Bush administration favors measures based not on benefits but on incentives such as those advocated by Housing Secretary Jack Kemp.
These include luring business into the inner city with enterprise zones, giving parents greater choice of schools for their children and expanding powers for public-housing tenants to own and manage their projects.
Choice or privatization can often improve the effectiveness of programs, but "empowerment" as a basis for social policy tends to presume exactly what is questionable -- that the poor can be competent managers of their own lives.
If poor people behaved rationally they would seldom be poor for long in the first place. Opportunity is more available than the will to seize it.
Only 41 percent of poor adults worked at all in 1990, only 10 percent full time year round. That is the initial reason most of them are poor.
Both liberals and conservatives assume that this group must be barred from employment by some external barrier -- low wages, lack of jobs or child care, racial bias, inadequate skills or welfare, which may seem to pay a person more to be dependent than to work.
But research has shown that none of these factors can explain more than a small part of the problem.
Jobs appear to be available to most poor people who seek them, despite the decline in manufacturing employment.
There is renewed talk of a need to create jobs for the poor in bad times, yet the non-working poor persist in cities such as Los Angeles and New York even in good times.
Most jobless black youths say they can find jobs, if not good ones.
Many menial jobs are done by illegal aliens, while poor Americans remain idle.
Wages for unskilled jobs are low but usually enough to avoid poverty and welfare if both parents work, as middle-class families do.
If welfare mothers worked most would earn above the minimum wage and the majority could get off welfare.
The effect of racial bias is mainly to limit the quality of jobs blacks can get, not to deny them all employment.
Mothers who need child care before they can work can usually find it. Barriers largely explain inequality among those who do work, not idleness. Non-work seems rooted much more in the defeatism and isolation of the ghetto.
Without a "smoking gun" America cannot cure poverty with the traditional reformism of either the left or right.
Merely to expand government spending on the poor, or to cut it back, does not motivate the entrenched poor to take available jobs.
That is why neither the Great Society nor the Reagan era succeeded in overcoming poverty.
Instead, the nation needs a more authoritative social policy in which the needy are told how to live instead of being only subsidized.
Elements of this "new paternalism" have already appeared.
Welfare increasingly requires that employable recipients work or enter training as a condition of support, while schools, confronted by weak families, have begun managing the lives of children, not simply teaching them.
Homeless facilities demand that clients avoid drugs and crime, and "shock incarceration" programs in prisons try to instill discipline in young offenders.
Such measures, which rely on public authority, show more potential to shape the behavior of the poor than any benefit or incentive policy, though hopes must remain limited.
The best single cure would be to enforce the work requirement more fully.
A less idle poor would not feel so powerless. Welfare mothers can be required to work as a condition of aid. So can men and youths, if they live in welfare families.
Some other jobless men can be obligated to work by states in order to pay child support judgments.
Private jobs should be stressed, with public jobs created only as a last resort.
Dysfunctional poverty has changed American politics.
Up through the civil-rights movement, the era of progressive politics, the big issue was whether government should do more or less to help ordinary people get ahead.
Since then, the big issue has been how to manage a poor population that usually does not work.
The leading question is no longer what kind of society we should have or how large government should be.
It is whether to enforce values, such as the work ethic, on which everyone is agreed. Republicans want to do this, while many Democrats resist.
In progressive politics, social structure and economic equality were at issue, but all sides assumed that the claimants workers, blacks, feminists were functional.
In the current dependency politics, competence is at issue rather than justice.
The dispute is over whether the poor can be held responsible for failing to function, but fundamental questions about society cannot be raised.
Politics is shifting its focus from class to conduct and that favors conservatives.
In the current campaign Democrats complain about the economy and growing inequality, but Republicans are likely to win, as in the past, by talking of welfare and crime.
When competence at the bottom of society is no longer at issue, then justice can be.
Lawrence M. Mead, professor of political science at New York University, is author of "The New Politics of Poverty: The Non-working Poor in America," published this year.