CHICAGO — Chicago. YOU CAN CALL him theoretician, evangelist or agitator. He grew up as a disciple of the late radical organizer Saul Alinsky, in the city that invented scrappy neighborhood organization. Some associates dub him ''the Buckminster Fuller of the neighborhood movement.''
John L. McKnight, professor of urban affairs at Northwestern University, is America's lead proponent of the idea that bureaucratic social services are strangling neighborhoods and their people, exacerbating the very problems they're supposed to correct.
Mr. McKnight is no right-wing ideologue arguing that ''government is the problem.'' Almost 30 years ago, the Kennedy administration's Sargent Shriver moved him to Washington, where he helped develop the country's pioneering ''affirmative-action'' programs.
While Mr. McKnight was investigating housing problems in a West Side Chicago neighborhood in the '70s, a Federal Housing Administration official confessed to him that poor and black areas considered too risky for investment had ''red lines'' around them. Mr. McKnight seized on the phrase, attacked ''red-lining,'' and laid the intellectual underpinning for the neighborhood-based protest that culminated in passage of the federal Community Reinvestment Act.
Mr. McKnight's current message is disturbing news for governments that are pouring hundreds of billions into welfare payments, public housing, health care, job training, drug or teen-age pregnancy counseling for ghettoes, barrios and poor white neighborhoods.
But it seems to make some horse sense. Mr. McKnight says we're treating poor neighborhoods like sick, troubled colonies -- colonies that social-service bureaucracies, by definition, have to keep dependent.
To the extent we surround people with a ''forest'' of social services, says Mr. McKnight, we define neighborhoods as bundles of social pathologies and their residents as helpless ''clients'' needing someone outside to ''save'' them from their base instincts. Do enough of that, he argues, and you create a culture of ''dependency, deviancy and poverty.'' And you generate the surly resentment that colonies have evidenced throughout history.
As antidote, Mr. McKnight would turn the whole system on its head and encourage the self-empowerment of people in neighborhoods. In true Alinsky style, he believes even the most ''disadvantaged'' people have immense untapped capacities, that neighborhoods are ''sleeping giants.''
Neighborhoods' great, unsung strength, he argues, are the informal networks of family, friends, neighborhood associations, clubs, civic groups, local businesses, churches. Mobilize them for social counseling, preventive health care, housing and economic development, and you could start to turn the tables on deprivation and decline.
Great idea, but how do you do it? Mr. McKnight has no pat answer, but he has startling statistics. His Urban Affairs Center at Northwestern found that in a single year, 1984, $4.8 billion was spent on poverty-related programs in Cook County. The figure covered what federal, state and local treasuries were paying to welfare workers, doctors, social workers, psychologists and security officers to minister unto the poor.
Mr. McKnight then divided the money by Cook County's total of poor people (781,330 that year). He derived a stunning average expenditure per person: $6,209. For a family of three that worked out to $18,600 a year -- by 1990 values, more than $20,000. But the service bureaucracies were eating up two-thirds of the total, leaving just one-third for cash payments for the poor.
Given his druthers, Mr. McKnight would just as soon write checks to the poor for the whole amount. With a modicum of financial security, decent housing and enough to eat, he believes, people would instinctively shake off poverty's most insidious impacts, from rotten nutrition to criminal behavior.
All this raises thorny questions. Even if the politically powerful social-service bureaucracies could be subdued, how much public support is there for bigger welfare checks? And would socially dysfunctional people respond appropriately?
Recognizing that problem, Mr. McKnight has another idea: Focus public dollars on strengthening the neighborhood's self-help capacities. Examples: community-development corporations to provide housing, community-based groups to provide health care, churches counseling troubled families. Peer-to-peer, the chances of success are immeasurably greater than with outside social-service functionaries.
Control must be wrested, says Mr. McKnight, from the hands of colonial-minded correctional systems that train people in crime, hospitals that make people sicker, ''stupid-making schools.'' Feed money, resources and incentives into neighborhoods, and we can only do better than we do now.
His arguments run thin when he's asked for specifics on how all this might actually work. His scorn of government service-providers seems shrill, overdrawn. Chicago's corporate elite so far have scorned his plea for a business-neighborhood alliance to attack the welfare system.
But Mr. McKnight shouldn't be faulted for being ahead of his time, says Joseph McNeely of the Baltimore-based Development and Training Institute. ''So what,'' Mr. McNeely asks, ''if some of John's ideas or statements seem a little outrageous? We're not talking about someone screaming fire in a theater. We're talking about a guy who is saying 'enough' when the firemen have been pouring gasoline on a fire.''
Mr. McKnight, in the meantime, keeps traveling the nation, expounding his gospel of radical decentralization and laying the groundwork for the next war on poverty -- if we are ever to have one.