When Gov. Harry Hughes presented his 1986 budget to the legislature this winter, he ran through a litany of improvements for state employes and businesses. Then, with rare flourish, he added that none of these was more important than his programs for the poor, the young and the vulnerable.

"We must make certain we have more to offer our children than mere jail cells to contain them if they go wrong when they grow up . . . " he said in his State of the State address. "For what does it matter if we save the [Chesapeake] Bay but lose our children? Who will inherit the very Earth we are trying so desperately to preserve?"

With that Hughes presented his "Youth Initiative," the centerpiece of his social services agenda this year. And with passage of much of that package now complete, along with significant increases in aid to other groups, Hughes and legislators are congratulating themselves on what they call one of the most successful sessions in memory for providing for the poor.

Maryland officials committed 11 percent more of the state's funds to the Department of Human Resources' $271.6 million budget, more than the 9 percent expansion in the overall operating budget, which totals $7.5 billion.

Among the program increases was a $4.8 million addition for the state's 20,000 general public assistance recipients, who are single, handicapped, destitute adults whose benefits have not risen since 1981 or before. The amount proposed by Hughes and approved by the legislature increased the $126 monthly benefits by $15, or 12 percent.

Another $9 million went to raising payments for the 195,000 individuals receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children. That amount increased grants by 5 percent, or added $16 to the $329 monthly check for the average family of three. Hughes added $6 million to community-based programs for the mentally ill and retarded and developmentally disabled; the legislature approved it, then followed up with $2.5 million more for the mentally retarded

Half a million more dollars will go to senior citizen centers. Hughes asked for $1 million for health prevention programs, but the legislature halved that figure. And the $12.5 million youth initiative package included a variety of programs spread across several departments, of which about $11 million received legislative approval.

But even as they managed to raise incomes of the destitute, open up more treatment facilities for the mentally ill and expand services for the elderly and young, Hughes and his legislative supporters agree that despite the program's high profile introduction, the youth initiative never really captured the attention of the legislature or the public to the same degree, for example, as last year's efforts to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

"It came in with a lot of fanfare, and I was underwhelmed from there on," said Sen. John Cade (R-Anne Arundel), a member of the Budget and Taxation Committee. The lack of excitement was a disappointment to supporters, who noted that legislative attention can often lead to improvements in programs.

A subcommittee headed by Del. Nancy Kopp (D-Montgomery), for example, refined a funding formula for a foster care program this year that will permit creation of two pilot projects to help foster children with special needs, which department officials eagerly support.

Although few here will count this phenomenon a failure of the youth package, most find in it either a statement about Hughes's promotional skills or the difficulty of improving human services or a puzzling commentary on the priorities of the times.

"I think overall, particularly in this day, that we had a very good year for social services," Hughes said in an interview late last week. But he added, "Why it didn't excite the imagination such as the bay program, I really don't know.

"Perhaps the tenor of the times makes it more difficult. On the federal level they're talking about cutting back on the aid to disadvantaged children, and this is being done by a very popular president, so maybe it's not that easy to get people's attention."

Said Cade, a fiscal conservative who nevertheless strongly advocates higher welfare grants, "There's no reason why it should have been that way. I think a hell of a lot more people in the state are interested in children than are interested in the bay."

Cade was among many lawmakers who faulted the packaging of the youth initiative. He said the programs were spread among too many areas, hastily crafted and only perfunctorily lobbied, a charge Hughes aides vigorously dispute. Some legislators said programs were created to sop up unspent federal money rather to solve particular problems. Hughes acknowledged that some funding included previously allocated but unspent federal dollars, but he denied that a need to spend motivated the creation of programs.

One program in particular, a $1 million effort to revise and expand a prekindergarten program for 4-year-olds, was harshly criticized by by some who said very young children would be stigmatized as slow learners.

Other programs received similar criticisms, but most of them were passed as proposed.

Explained Sen. Frank Kelly (D-Baltimore County), "If there were any questions they were , 'Where are these positions going to go, and are they really going to meet the need?' . . . . But nobody was going to stop it because they know the need is there."

Yet still others maintained that in a year when the state accumulated a $47 million surplus, more could have been done. "I think this governor has been sensitive to the needs of the least of us," said Del. Wendell Phillips (D-Baltimore City). "But when I look at the capital expenses and I see how much we spend on prisons, I have problems really. It appears that we don't consider people needs as important as property needs."

Despite these criticisms, officials across the ideological spectrum here said they were pleased with what the state was able and willing to do for social programs, particularly in light of the current national climate. Virginia Gov. Charles S. Robb, they noted, urged the legislature against expanding programs this year because of the threat of future federal cutbacks.

The youth initiative included many programs, some increases in existing projects. Among them:

* $1.5 million for more state-subsidized day care slots and increased rates. The increase means about 7,445 children can be served, 500 more than this year. Total funding will still fall below the 1982 spending. After that the program loses significant federal funding.

* $900,000 to hire 55 workers to investigate child abuse complaints.

* $2.6 million to improve reimbursement rates to group homes and facilities that provide specialized foster care, and $1.6 million, including federal funds, to increase payments for families who take in foster children. The average monthly stipend per child is $178; rates will increse 20 percent for most children.

* $1.4 million for intensive family counseling to try to prevent some families from needing foster care. Some funds were redirected to start pilot projects to serve specialized cases.

* $500,000 for a training program for high school seniors in danger of dropping out of school.

Included in Hughes' package was a variety of bills to stem the problem of child abuse, most of which, save a measure to permit background checks of child care workers, are expected to be enacted after amendments.

Members of the legislature contributed bills addressing social problems. One creates a Rental Housing Resource Corp. that will allow Realtors to establish an account to be used to rehabilitate low-income housing. Another bill, enacted Friday, will create subsidized telephone service for the very poor.

Overall, said Senate President Melvin A. Steinberg (D-Baltimore County), "I think the increases in the welfare grant and the youth initiative, symbolically as well as fiscally, was very important. It sent a signal that we care."