JIMMY AND BOBBY are both second-graders who enjoy school, read slightly above their grade average and have higher than average IQs. Based on their bright-eyed eagerness, their test scores and our most cherished ideals, we are encouraged to believe that these two youngsters show relatively equal promise to share as adults in the American dream. But a cold-eyed gambler can already predict that Bobby is four times as likely as Jimmy to enter college, 12 times as likely to graduate and 27 times as likely to end up with a high-paying job. In fact, the odds are 8 to 1 against Jimmy ever earning even the median income.

In a provocative book which comes out of a five-year study by the Carnegie Council on Children, author Richard de Lone dramatically spreads out this "arithmetic of inequality in America." Beyond that he seeks to explain why liberal social reform policies repeatedly fail to lessen this inequality, and to offer new proposals so that children like Jimmy will not be limited to such "small futures." He succeeds in all these missions, writing lucidly about issues too often obfuscated by social science jargon.

In a more liberal political climate, Small Futures might well serve as a catalyst for renewed action for social justice. Such an outcome is highly unlikely today, but this book can help stimulate the kind of necessary rethinking of fundamental premises which is needed to avoid endlessly repeating the mistakes of the past.

As the 1970s end, we are still futilely debating the Great Society programs launched in the '60s, with critics saying the programs are ineffective and should be abandoned, and defenders insisting the programs would work if only the once-heralded "war on poverty" was not continually underfunded. In de Lone's view, the debate totally misses the dynamics of inequality; that the programs are based on flawed premises and unreal expectations.

It is the fundamental contention of this book that the war against inequality has been fought on the wrong battlefield, with children being used inappropriately as the soldiers and blamed for the defeats.

Brilliantly tracing the history of social turmoil and resultant reform efforts in the Jacksonian, Progressive and Great Society eras, de Lone shows that reformers always end up assigning children the task of resolving the deepest tension in American life-- between ideals of political equality and those of capitalist economics. After each protest about gross inequalities between rich and poor, whites and minorities, we decide that improving children is the way both to lessen inequality and provide equal opportunity for all. But in each case, the inequalities have persisted, political reaction sets in and the deficiencies of the poor are blamed for the failure of the reforms.

The central thesis of the Carnegie Council study is that improving children, worthwhile and necessary as that endeavor is, will neither lessen the extent of inequality in the society, nor significantly improve equality of opportunity for those poor children. De Lone and the council argue persuasively that the only way to provide more equality of opportunity for poor children is to first lessen the actual inequality in society itself.

Take Bobby and Jimmy. Bobby is the son of a successful lawyer whose annual salary of $35,000 puts him well within the top 10 percent of wage earners. Jimmy's father, who did not complete high school, works from time to time as a messenger or a custodial assistant. His annual earnings of about $4,800 put him in the bottom 10 percent. Despite Jimmy's brightness he is unlikely to overcome the myriad disadvantages of growing up poor in a highly competitive, affluent country.

If the country really wants poor children to have a better shot at sharing in the dream, de Lone argues, then the necessary starting point is to lessen the enormous disparity of economic, political and social power which separate poor families from the rest of society. Jimmy's family needs a guaranteed job, a wage supplement or an income boost from some kind of redistribution plan. The income disparity between the top fifth and the bottom fifth of American families needs to be reduced from the 8 to 1 margin (which has persisted for 35 years) to a lesser 4 to 1 margin. "Short of this kind of redistribution," writes de Lone, "we believe, the odds affecting Bobby and Jimmy are not likely to change . . . the dynamics of our social structure are not likely to produce more equality of opportunity unless there is more equality to begin with."

Lest they be misunderstood, the Carnegie Council members stress they do not oppose, but believe in the need for child-improvement programs. Poor children, as well as affluent children, need all the help they can get from health care and educational programs, and the poor can least afford to buy these services. But six weeks in Head Start is not going to overcome the handicaps of growing up poor and powerless. Sixteen weeks in manpower training is not going to solve job and income needs in an economy structured so that millions are always unemployed or underemployed at poverty-level wages.

Of course, there are success stories from the Great Society. There are countless people who have made it up out of poverty, helped by Head Start, Upward Bound, AFDC, food stamps, medicaid, manpower training, college scholarships, etc. But those thousands are the exceptions. For the millions at the bottom of the American social and economic ladder, says de Lone, "services are insufficient by themselves to alter the powerlessness, the limited life options, and the hardships of everyday experience that are the bottom line of inequality."

Most importantly, children fully realize the bleak realities of that bottom line, and no amount of Horatio Alger pep talks is likely to jar them from their own understanding of where they fit in life's odds-- odds in which only one child in five will get a better job than its parents, odds in which black Americans end up after a lifetime at the same place or lower on the job ladder than they began, odds in which Jimmy only has one chance in eight of ever earning an average income. "The most destructive aspect of poverty for children," de Lone writes, "is the fact that for most of them adult life will not be significantly better."

Sally and Joseph, 8-year-old second-graders, both stress to an interviewer that they are working hard in school because they realize it is very important. "Why?" they are asked. Sally, the white daughter of a school superintendent, says school is important so she can go to college and become a doctor. Joseph, the black son of a lunch room worker, says school is important "so you can get out" and on to a job in a gas station or candy store. You might say that Sally is more sophisticated, brighter, and comes from a richer home-learning environment. But de Lone says both these children have realistic theories about their futures. Joseph already knows the odds.

The question is whether we will ever have the political desire and will to change those cruel, undemocratic odds. If not, de Lone says, we should at least stop the fanciful delusion that a few child-improvement programs will give Joseph a fair shot at rising from the bottom of American society.