A perennial issue in American politics, income distribution, has returned to center stage after a decade's absence. It seems "unfair" that poverty persisted at high levels in the 1980s as the number of millionaires soared.

Using the official definition, the poverty rate in 1989 (12.8 percent) was higher than it had been 20 years earlier in 1969 (12.6 percent), despite an increase in average real personal income per person of 37 percent.There are problems with the definition of poverty. The government itself recently reported more than 25 alternative definitions, with poverty rates ranging from 7.6 percent to 20.3 percent.

Yet using any consistent definition, the proportion of Americans who are poor has not changed significantly over the past two decades despite rising incomes and economic growth.

Some claim that public support for the poor was curtailed during the Reagan era, reversing earlier progress in eradicating poverty. Others point out that wages among lower-skilled and lower-paid workers have risen less rapidly than for more highly trained workers. The solution: more entitlement spending and/or greater spending for education and training programs.

In reality, real per capita federal spending for "income security" in fiscal 1990 was almost precisely the same as 10 years earlier, and was more than double the 1969 level, when poverty was lower than today.

While the skilled-unskilled pay differential has grown, there is much evidence that increased school spending does little, if anything, to improve educational or training outcomes. Inferior schools in low income areas are more a problem than a solution. Throwing money to the educational establishment will do little to help the poor.

There are two major reasons poverty has persisted at high levels: a decline in work participation among those whose income security is "at risk" and the virtual destruction of the traditional family among lower-income Americans.

While some poor Americans cannot find jobs, most simply choose to be unemployed - they literally cannot afford to work. To work means to lose one's medical card, food stamps, publicly subsidized housing or AFDC cash payments. For every work dollar earned, many poor must give up 80, 90 or even 100 cents in benefits.

Welfare is entrapping people into a culture of poverty and non-work.

The welfare programs evolving out of the Great Society of the 1960s have contributed to the breakup of the traditional family among low-income Americans. The state has become the surrogate father, providing long-term "income maintenance" that previously was provided by a male head of household.

Where the father is absent, incomes tend to be low. The poverty rate in married-couple families in 1989 was 6.7 percent, compared with 35.9 percent in fatherless households headed by a female. Nearly two-thirds of the poor live outside married-couple families.

Almost 77 million Americans - more than 31 percent - lived outside the traditional family arrangement in 1989, compared with about 17 percent 20 years earlier. According to my calculations, poverty today would be more than 20 percent lower (6 million fewer poor) if we had not had a shift away from traditional family units.

The solution to the poverty problem is to reduce the debilitating effects of the welfare state.

Welfare should be offered to able-bodied Americans only as a temporary helping hand. Governmental encouragement for non-traditional living arrangements should be halted.

Being "kind and gentle" to the poor, we have trapped many of them into a life of poverty that lacks purpose and meaning. Let's be kind to the poor by getting tough on them.