This is the time of year when many state legislatures start coming together to decide how the taxpayers' moneys are going to be divvied up. What brings this thought to mind is a new report from the Children's Defense Fund that takes a look at how children fared in this exercise last year, and the news wasn't exactly terrific.

"Child Care: Whose Priority?" -- a white paper written by Helen Blank and Amy Wilkins -- examines what the states did in 1985 to make up for the 21 percent cuts in federal child-care support that occurred in 1981. The cuts occurred in the Title XX Social Services Block Grant and, according to the report, "the very small increases that have been enacted in some of the subsequent years have failed to restore Title XX to even its 1981 level."

Most states have not taken up the slack. "When inflation is factored in, 35 states are spending less money for child-care services funded through the Title XX program in 1985 than in 1981. Twenty-two states are spending less for child care now than in 1981 even without an adjustment for inflation." The governments of Maryland, D.C. and Virginia are among the 35 spending less for child care, when inflation is factored in, although Maryland and the District are among 18 areas that are now serving more children than in 1981.

Virginia is one of 24 states serving fewer children than in 1981. "In 1985 Virginia allocated only 39 percent of what it spent in 1981 and served only 48 percent of the children it served in 1981," said Blank. "Only 52 out of its 136 localities offer child-care subsidies to low-income working families that aren't receiving welfare."

Other particularly egregious examples of what has happened: In Kentucky, the only new children eligible for Title XX child-care services since Jan. 1, 1985, have been those who are documented as abused or neglected. A report by the Association for Children of New Jersey found that the state has child-care facilities for fewer than two out of three children who need them, and, on top of that, about 250,000 elementary school children go home to empty houses. Idaho provides no child-care subsidies for low-income parents who are not on welfare. In Pennsylvania, about 20,000 children received subsidized care and 300,000 needed it.

The report did note that some legislatures are beginning to realize that good child care is a wise and cost-effective investment. Massachusetts, for example, increased funding for subsidies and raised reimbursement rates for care givers. The legislature allocated money to provide 26 new state licensing positions.

Florida increased its 1986 funding by $10 million, enabling it to give care for 10,000 more poor children. New Jersey has added $15 million for child-care services and is allocating a portion of these for teen-age parents. North Carolina increased its funding for 1986 by 20 percent and is targeting areas with large numbers of poor children.

California allocated $8 million for care for school-age children in 1986 and $10.6 million for school-aged children of mothers in its new workfare program. Michigan set up a Youth Parents Program that guarantees child-care help for any mother so she can complete high school or its equivalent. And Iowa took the novel step of targeting $1 million in state lottery revenue for start-up costs of various forms of child care.

In this age of fiscal frugality, the most compelling reason for providing money for child care is that it saves money. The report cited a study done in Ohio that found that public assistance for a year for a mother and one child cost $6,000, but it cost only $2,000 for full-time child care so the parent could work.

About 12 million children are now living in single-parent families. "In 1983," the report noted, "55 percent of children in single-headed families were poor. One key cause of this poverty was the difficulty in working or working limited hours because of the unavailability of child care." These are children who will grow up with custodial care, no care at all, or children whose mothers will end up on welfare because they cannot work and afford child care. None of the above gives a child a very good start in life, and we have volumes of stories that tell us what a price we pay in terms of teen-age pregnancy and delinquency when we ignore the needs of the young.

The math is clear: It is sound economic policy to pay attention to children before they grow up and create another cycle of poverty, neglect and problems. Last year, some states recognized the wisdom of that investment. The wish here is that even more will this year.