CONSIDER THESE FACTS: A year ago, the U.S. Department of Labor said 44.9 percent of the nation's pre- school children had working mothers. Only a small percentage of those 8.2 million children were accounted for in some form of day care. But that is only where the problem begins.

During the next few years massive federal cutbacks will endanger much of the day care industry which has survived by patching together funding through federal, state and local goodwill. Just as the fragile day care industry is crumbling, more and more mothers are being forced to go to work. As the two trends collide in coming years, the victims will be the children.

Thousands of children of the working poor have been or will soon be dropped from day care either because centers close or because their parents can't afford to pay. Many facilities which depended on federal subsidies will cut their staffs in order to remain in business.

The results will be more than than social and economic hardship. The educational opportunity for a generation of children could be in danger. Most day care centers now provide some educational programs while they baby-sit. But these learning opportunities will be lost if centers throughout the land are forced to close or lower their standards significantly to survive.

To demonstrate the potential advantage available to youngsters in day care, advocates point to a study funded partially by the Carnegie foundation and released a year ago. The study, called the Ypsilanti Perry Preschool Project, followed 123 disadvantaged children for 18 years, and found that "on 48 measures of school and life success . . . children who attended a quality preschool on average significantly out-performed children who had not."

From early indications, the study said, these children "will show a higher high school completion rate, a greater likelihood of attending college, less tendency to use welfare, higher employment, and lower arrest rates than those who had not."

These results contradict an earlier study that said the Head Start program, providing quality instruction and day care, gave children only a slight advantage which evaporated when they got older.

Even though it seems unlikely all centers will be forced to close, many will have to adjust their mode of operation. As the cuts deepen in coming years, even centers committed to strong educational programs will feel extreme pressure to choose between "quality" care and no care at all.

"With the cuts, day care centers will have larger staff-child ratios, which will reduce the quality of care," predicts Jan Yocum, director of the Rosemont Center, a bilingual center for children in the District's Adams-Morgan neighborhood. "They'll have to raise the rates so high, they'll leave out the low-income families altogether. That's how trickle-down works."

The decision to lower standards will be particularly tempting because Congress has suspended all federal regulations for day care indefinitely, leaving control of the industry to the usually much less stringent standards of the states. Proposed federal regulations, before they were scrapped in 1980, would have, for instance, required one adult for every three children under the age of 2, and one adult for every nine children between the ages of 3 and 6. In comparison, Texas, which is typical of the other states, allows a staff-child ratio of 1-to-9 for children between 18 months and 2 years, 1-to-15 for 3-year-olds, and 1-to-24 for 6 and older.

The problems of day care are not confined to the poor. Even in affluent Montgomery County, the way people think about child care has drastically changed in the past year. When the county appointed a task force to study child care a year ago, county council staff member Justina Ferber said, there was skepticism about the need for the study, largely because day care was perceived as something for poor people.

"But people have come to realize that child care affects their neighbors and their sons and daughters. The economy has changed so much in the past year that more and more women have had to go back to the work force for their families to survive," Ferber said.

The task force has already made some preliminary estimates, based on national labor statistics and U.S. Census figures for the county, which mirror the national problem. The task force estimates that there are probably about 82,000 children under 18 in the county with working mothers, nearly 15,000 of them preschool age. Only 7,300 of all these children are taken care of in some form of licensed day care--either a center or a private home which meets certain county standards.

The county has no idea how many children are supervised by parents staggering their work hours, babysitters, neighbors, unlicensed day care homes, or are considered old enough to take care of themselves. These last have been dubbed "latch-key children" for the house keys they usually wear around their necks.

Some child care experts are alarmed by the stories they hear about children left alone for all or part of the time their parents work. Becky Allen, president of Montgomery County's 4 Cs: Alliance for Children, an advocacy group for children's concerns, said one Carroll County teacher told her three-fourths of her second grade class came to school with keys around their necks.

At home in the afternoons alone, "These children are turning into TV boobs, they're just hooked on TV," said Allen. Other children do not stay home, but roam their neighborhoods and frequently get into trouble, she said. For many parents the only alternative has been day care-- but it is an expensive one.

During the past decade the federal and state governments have constructed a complicated set of financial supports to help poor and middle-income parents defray the high costs of day care (estimated to be between $40 and $60 a week per child in Maryland). Now, however, federal Title XX day care funding has been abolished under President Reagan's New Federalism. Day care must now compete with a host of other programs that have been pooled into the Social Services Block Grants to the states. Money for all those programs was cut last year.

But the next round of cuts in fiscal '83 will be devastating --from $2.4 billion to $1.97 billion or 25 percent--said Larry Lutz, spokesman for the Day Care Council of America, a national organization representing the industry. Lutz expects the impact to be enormous on an estimated 75,000 to 85,000 day care centers across the country. "I would suspect that between 60 and 75 percent of these centers have at least one child subsidized," he said. With these cuts plus reductions in funds for hot meals and in CETA funds, which often paid for some day care center staff, Lutz says, "It is very likely that many of these centers will fold because the margin of profit is so small."

State day care administrators so far have been able to "pool little pockets of money from here and there and still serve some number of clients, but it is their feeling this is the last year they can do this," Lutz said.

Frank Sullivan, director of Maryland's office of Child Day Care, estimates that 1,200 of the 6,000 children now receiving subsidized care will be cut. Ninety-five percent of these children come from working families.

Several day care center directors in the Washington area say they will will have to make drastic changes to survive. Yocum, at the Rosemont Center, said she is already considering cutting out breakfast, and asking parents to bring bag lunches for the approximately 120 poor and middle- class children the center serves.

"The consumer population can only take so much in terms of rates. Infant care now is $100 a week. There's no way we can raise that," she said.

In Northern Virginia, the situation is grave, said Marian Houk, coordinator of an emergency coalition of centers organized to lobby for restored funding. Jane Angrist of Alexandria's social services department said many poor working families are finding that with the loss of their child care support, they are better off on welfare. In Fairfax County, so far, the Board of Supervisors has helped pay for children who would have lost day care, Houk said.

Money pressures, however, are already diminishing Houk's attention to the children at the ACCA Day Care Center in Annandale, where she is director. "I feel it now, I'm too busy to meet the real significant human needs of parents and the children," because this year she must raise $150,000 from the 24 churches that support the center-- $70,000 more than last year.

Jerome Kagan, a Harvard University professor of psychology who specializes in children, foresees tremendous consequences from the dwindling funds to day care: "The lack of these facilities will put additional worry and concern on families already burdened with worry and stress, and that's not good for the families or the child."

Many older children will be left without supervision, Kagan predicted, "How many it's impossible to say." Even if some day care centers are only holding places, he continued, "The children weren't harmed by it. It's better to be at a center than home alone. Even if it didn't enhance their education, what is the alternative?"

President Reagan has justified cutting social programs in order to build a strong defense, Yocum of the Rosemont Center says, "but they're going to need men and women in the Army." To qualify, those people will need to be healthy and literate, she adds, "and that doesn't come about all of a sudden when you're 18 or 19."

"It's a matter of the commitment our society wants to make to families who are trying to help themselves," Houk said. "A segment of our society is saying this isn't important anymore. But I think we're letting our morals sag a bit, unless we keep these things going."