BOSTON — Boston. -- The poor were with us again last week. They made their seasonal appearance as people down on their luck and worthy of help. They filled the quota of Christmas Day stories from soup kitchens and shelters. They were the subject of toy and food drives. And, even in hard times, they were the objects of generosity.
But soon things will be back to normal. Any day now, in state legislatures and in election-year rhetoric we will start up the rancorous arguments about poverty again. We won't be talking about charity then. The topic will be welfare.
Consider how differently these words resonate in our minds: the poor and welfare clients, the neediest and AFDC mothers, charity and General Relief. In the waning days before Christmas, one newspaper ran a report about the deep cuts in aid to the poor right above its annual Christmas plea: ''Do Not Forget the Neediest.'' Few noticed the irony.
So, before the last Christmas ornament is packed away, it must be acknowledged: There is virtually no support left for this
welfare system. You don't have to be David Duke to see that or say that.
This fall, when unemployment money started to run out, the benefits were extended by popular demand. But there was no such outcry in the 40 states that cut or froze benefits to AFDC families or in the 14 states that cut half a million people from general assistance. In most places there was ringing or grudging approval.
Blame it on hard times, blame it on welfare stereotypes, blame it on middle-class frustration. The current welfare system pits the struggling middle class against the poor, the working poor against the welfare poor. If it had been designed with the express purpose of fostering class resentment, it couldn't have done a better job.
Today as more women work to keep their own families afloat, fewer want to pay for mothers at home. As more working families go without health care, more resent Medicaid for the non-working. Indeed, as David Ellwood, a public-policy professor Harvard, is quick to say, ''Everyone resents the welfare system.'' Even -- or especially -- those who are on it.
''Welfare creates conundrums,'' he says. ''On the one hand we want to raise welfare because the kids are poor and it's tough. On the other hand we want to lower it because we don't want to encourage dependency. We want to help single-parent families but not encourage their formation. We want to target programs to the truly needy but not stigmatize them as the truly failing.''
This year, the ''conundrums'' gave rise to taxpayer protests. But next year will be a time of full-tilt change. This patchwork welfare system cannot truly be ''reformed.'' We will either go down a vindictive route, slashing and burning, or we'll pursue saner, more humane alternatives.
What would alternatives to welfare look like? Mr. Ellwood suggests two ways of looking at programs that deal with poverty while making peace between the middle class and poor.
The first idea he states quite simply: ''If you work, you shouldn't be poor.'' As it is now, work doesn't always ''pay.'' The disincentives are not just low wages, but the cost of child care and health care. To make work pay, we need universal health care, child care and some level of income support, like the refundable tax credit proposed by the National Commission on Children.
The second principle for any viable alternative to welfare? ''One parent cannot be expected to do the job of two.''
Today, two-parent middle-class families feel stretched trying to work and take care of their children. Single poor parents are often overwhelmed. Some don't even try. At the very least, for the sake of equity and economics, these families should have a more effective child-support enforcement program to collect money from the absent parent.
Some of these programs are costly, although it is often said and absolutely true that they are less burdensome than allowing another generation of children to grow up in poverty and dependency. Others are controversial, although far less so than welfare.
If we are angry enough, of course, welfare can become the Willie Horton of 1992. But if we care enough about children, the poorest of our poor, this is the time to start seriously building an alternative. It is the year to prove that our concern with poverty is more than a Seasonal Affective Disorder.
8, Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.