A new $52 billion housing bill signed the other day by President Bush is designed not only to tackle the housing needs of the poor but also contains provisions to help low-income people become homeowners instead of merely recipients of government handouts.

It is a noble idea that needs to be expanded to other areas as well. Too many federal programs make people dependent on social support instead of providing a way to achieve economic independence.The National Affordable Housing Act signed by the president provides $155 million this fiscal year and $885 million in fiscal 1992 to help low-income people purchase their public housing units or homes that are vacant or have been foreclosed.

Grants or credits would be given to qualified individals to make the home purchases.

As the president put it, the act encourages responsibility without the shackles of dependency. The idea is to give people the tools to help themselves, rather than have government social programs do it for them.

This and other self-help plans in education and welfare that Bush wants to feature in his next State of the Union address are not new. Many were sought by President Reagan and some have roots stretching back to the 1960s.

Most have not had support in Congress over the years, but the administration is counting on the rising tide of dissatisfaction with government to give new life to some of these old ideas. Yet the concept of encouraging self-help is an excellent principle that can do more to lift people than any other approach.

Part of the problem in the past is the half-hearted way such ideas have been carried out or the stifling hand of bureaucracy that has been laid upon them.

Not everyone in the Bush administration appears to be on board. Budget director Richard Darman has come under fire for saying that the self-help proposals are simply "little more than slogans."

They could be sidelined into being just that, but it would be tragic. The principle of self-help is too important to simply be used as a political football. In any program there will be failures, but that is no reason not to keep searching for answers.

The lives, the dignity, the economic future of many Americans depend on being helped to lift themselves out of poverty, not being made into permanent fixtures of the underclass subsisting on government handouts.