Americans may have finally decided this year they've had it with panhandlers and loiterers, drug sellers and prostitutes, squeegee men and graffiti artists, welfare parents without jobs, streets littered with people in obvious need of medical care.

Call it compassion fatigue or plain frustration. But cities and states increasingly are trying to restore order to their streets and discipline to their social policies, with Congress poised to do the same to the federal welfare program."Clearly something has crystallized in the last year," said Fred Siegel, a historian at Cooper Union college in New York. "This is becoming mainstream thinking."

It's not that America has become a nation of Scrooges. In fact, one recent poll found 81 percent would pay higher taxes to help the homeless. But there are many signs that the pendulum is on its way back from the far side of the permissive 1960s.

"The implicit slogan of the '60s was `it is forbidden to forbid,' " said Siegel. "But people are discovering that if you allow dysfunctional behavior in a limited way, you allow it to spread throughout society."

Election returns this year suggest that politicians are imperiled if they don't deal head-on with the declining quality of urban life and the public's increasing impatience with what Siegel calls "the moral deregulation of society."

In New York, in San Francisco, in Los Angeles, in Rochester, the candidates who won were those who understood their constituents' anger about steps that smell like urine. Sidewalks lined with sleeping bodies. Open-air drug markets. Frighteningly aggressive panhandlers. "Tagging crews" that cover a city with graffiti. Squeegee men who smear filthy cloths on windshields and then demand money from motorists.

These are the nightmares that cause business and the middle class to flee, that discourage urban investment, that keep suburbanites at home on weekends. The bottom line is economic survival.

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Anxious city councils are moving to outlaw sleeping, camping, loitering and other disruptive street activities. Community policing is much in vogue, not because it stems crime but because a cop walking a beat brings civility and order to chaotic, threatening neighborhoods.

In state capitals, meanwhile, lawmakers are cracking down on welfare recipients. No extra money for extra babies in New Jersey and Georgia, on the theory that working people don't get raises for new children. No aid to teenage mothers in Massachusetts unless they live with their parents or in a supervised group home.

Conservative writer Charles Murray stirred the pot this year by asking whether teenage mothers should receive welfare at all. And the emerging federal consensus, endorsed by President Clinton, is that welfare benefits to all mothers give way to mandatory work after a limited period.

Proponents of all these moves say they're interested in discipline, standards, responsibility and getting help for those who need it - not in punishing victims. Advocates for the homeless and poor, however, say their answers are facile and sometimes cruel.

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