A small, but potentially very constructive step is being taken in the District toward helping women get off welfare while addressing one of the city's principal needs. It is called Single Mothers Are Resources Too -- SMART -- and what it does is precisely that: It makes good use of a natural labor pool to provide after-school care for the city's latchkey children.

SMART is the brainchild of D.C. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4), who proposed it in February and subsequently won council funding for it. The program started with 33 mothers on public assistance who began child care training at the beginning of July.

"The program is designed to address two needs," says Jarvis. "Working parents have a great need for child care before and after school. We have many mothers on public assistance who not only need training to get off of welfare but they also need child care while they are receiving that training. The SMART program addresses all of those needs. It provides child care, the care is provided by mothers who are on public assistance at the same time they are receiving training in child care techniques. These mothers bring their own children to the training site so that they are being cared for at the same time the mothers are learning the skills of child care."

The training program lasts three months and at the end the city's Department of Employment Services is supposed to help the graduates find work. The University of the District of Columbia will award nine credits to those graduates who already have some higher education, says Jarvis, to encourage them to continue on in college.

The first training program is being held at Cardozo High School, which already has a full-day child care program. Three more centers will open in other schools this fall, says Jarvis, where they will offer training to the mothers and child care for parents in the community. The schools will be "in areas of the city with high percentages of mothers on public assistance or where there's a high percentage of teen pregnancy and those areas tend to overlap."

The women are paid a stipend of $35 a week to cover transportation and lunch. That stipend does not diminish their welfare checks. The council is spending $150,000 in the 1986 budget to establish the program and has voted an additional $63,000 for it in the supplemental budget. "It is very cost-effective," says Jarvis. "The overhead is low. The schools are there."

The program will be bringing in money because parents will pay for the child care according to their incomes. The sliding scale also makes it possible for the mothers who go through the training program to keep their children in that child care after they get jobs.

The principal requirement for getting into the program, says Jarvis, is interest. "For this kind of program you've got to find highly motivated people to participate because you're talking about caring for other people's children. You've got to look very carefully at the temperament and the interest of mothers who would be in these programs."

The goal, she says, is "certifying mothers on public assistance in child care." From that point on, she says, they can go to work in child care centers "or they can go into their own businesses if they wish."

In either case, says Jarvis, the hope is that they will be employed at higher incomes than they were getting from welfare. This is a vital point for the program to work, particularly because child care has traditionally been one of the lowest paying occupations.

Barbara Bergmann, a University of Maryland economics professor, argues that welfare has for many women become a "poverty trap." In her book, "Poverty and Single Parents," which is due out in October, she says that "about a third of full-time jobs that women have open to them are not sufficient to support a family consisting of a mother and two children at a standard above the poverty line. A mother who left welfare for such a job would be making her situation worse because of the loss of benefits (including medical care) and the loss of her free time."

A mother of two, she writes, "who went off welfare in 1985 would need to get a job paying $9,000 to have about the same cash disposable income she had on welfare."

How well these mothers will do in getting out of the poverty trap is anybody's guess. But at least there's an effort being made to match an underused labor source with one of the city's biggest service needs. These single mothers are resources and properly trained and compensated they could become the major resource for a school-age child care system.