You can tell from what is coming out of the White House now that the party line for the New Federalism is that the states have changed, that they are much more socially responsible than they were before the Great Society. "We have a different society than we had 20 or 25 years ago when the federal government felt it incumbent upon it to develop national standards," was the way presidential counselor Edwin Meese III put it.

In the spirit of the New Federalism, the Reagan administration is proposing to turn over to the states child-welfare and adoption-assistance programs. The administration is also proposing to turn over a number of other programs that do things like feed and shelter and provide medical care for children, but let us look for a moment at what is happening with child welfare and adoption assistance. It illustrates as neatly as anything else the human cost of the New Federalism and the extraordinary disruption in social services to the truly needy that the Reagan administration is creating.

Mr. Meese's social changes did not extend to states' foster-care systems, and in June 1980, Congress voted to provide federal remedies for what had become a national scandal. This was done by nearly unanimous, bipartisan passage of the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act.

This highly technical piece of T legislation, which was five years in the making, was designed to give financial incentives to the states to better manage their foster-care programs, to get children out of foster-care homes and back into their own families when that was possible, or into adoptive homes when their families were no longer viable.

The act was an effort to put a stop to situations in which children were taken out of their homes because of abuse or other family problems and then placed in foster care, shuttled from home to home, lost in the system, never getting back to their own families or some kind of permanent home. The act provided money for services to help repair the original family and, when that was deemed unfeasible, it provided money to place foster children in adoptive homes and provided subsidies to families adopting welfare children with special needs or handicaps.

The best estimates available are that there are a half-million children in the foster-care system now, says Brenda Russell, legislative analyst of the Child Welfare League. "This legislation mandated a lot of protections for children so they would not get lost in the foster-care system and it mandated a lot of work with the families."

Up until 1979, the foster-care system was run and financed primarily by the states at a cost of $800 million a year, with the federal government providing only $56.5 million, or 7 percent of the child welfare services budget. But the states, while providing 93 percent of the budget, were unable to accomplish needed reforms. The states' collective failure in this area was of such magnitude and so scandalously documented in congressional hearings that the child welfare act, which tied reforms to federal financial incentives, passed 401 to 2 in the House.

In his State of the Union address, I President Reagan assured the nation that "child welfare programs will not be cut from the levels we proposed last year." These soothing words leave the impression that the program is functioning the way Congress intended. It is not. Russell says that the Carter administration published federal regulations for the program on Dec. 31, 1980, but that they were held up in the midst of the Reagan regulatory reforms. It was further jeopardized when the Reagan administration proposed turning it over to the states as part of its block grants proposal last year. Congress beat back that effort as well as a major cut in the program's funds, but the states were in limbo, waiting to see what would happen, and now the administration is renewing its efforts to turn this over to the states. "We still don't have regulations for this law," said Russell.

Further, she said, an advance copy of the child welfare block grant proposal shows that the Reagan administration wants a 46 percent reduction for child welfare programs in 1983, over what is currently authorized for that year. This is slightly more than it requested be cut in 1982, and, she said, it would reduce funds to the point that they would be used up financing foster placement, and such services as adoption or family reunification would become luxuries.

For a half-million youngsters, the New Federalism will provide the same shot at life they've been getting under the old state foster-care system, and maybe not even that.