Part of Barbara Bush's considerable charm is that she has a way of saying all the things we wish were true. She is reassuring. For her, the system worked. She left college to marry the man she loved and 45 years later not only are they still married but they seem very much in love. Her investment worked out.

It is no wonder that she told the 1990 graduates of Wellesley College to cherish their human connections, their relationships with family and friends.

"For several years," she told them, "you've had impressed upon you the importance to your career of dedication and hard work, and of course that's true. But as important as your obligations as a doctor, a lawyer, a business leader will be, you are a human being first, and those human connections with spouses, with children, with friends are the most important investment you will ever make."

And later, "Fathers and mothers, if you have children, they must come first . . . . Your success as a family, our success as a society, depends not on what happens in the White House but on what happens inside your house."

The harsh reality, however, is that in too many houses women who believed that these human connections were the most important investments they could make have been fleeced by death or divorce. And they are rapidly plunged into poverty.

The truth of too many women's lives is that those who choose homemaking as a full-time occupation and turn their economic destiny over to a man are entering one of the most high-risk careers there is. Much is made of the risks in entrepreneurship, of the time it takes out of a person's life when she starts a new business, but more than half of the businesses started by women survive. By contrast, the National Center for Health Statistics has projected that about half of all marriages begun in recent years will end in divorce. About 20 percent of our formerly married are widowed.

Thursday, the day before Mrs. Bush spoke at Wellesley, the National Displaced Homemakers Network issued the most comprehensive report yet on homemakers and single parents who have lost their main source of income because of separation, divorce, widowhood or long-term unemployment of their spouses. During the last decade, the number of displaced homemakers rose 12 percent, from 13.9 million women to 15.6 million -- a rate of almost 200,000 women a year. That increase took place in all 38 states for which 1989 census data was available. Maryland and Virginia were among the nine states where the number of displaced homemakers increased more than 50 percent. Figures were not available for the District.

These women, and their minor children, are among the poorest people in the population. Nearly three out of five displaced homemakers were poor or near poor in 1989 and had incomes less than 150 percent of the poverty level. Half of the white displaced homemakers were in that category, but three-quarters of the minority women were. Nearly half of the 35- to 64-year-old displaced homemakers were poor, as were 23.5 percent of those who were 65 or older. That is double the incidence of poverty in the general population 65 or older. Home ownership among displaced homemakers declined during the decade, and by 1989 nearly 3 million, or one in five, were doubled up in housing.

Although more worked by the end of the decade, the majority were still unemployed and many of those who did work held part-time jobs. Jill Miller, executive director of the displaced homemakers network, called on the business community, the states and the federal government to give these women a chance to regain their place in the economic mainstream. She urged them to develop new methods of recruitment and training for these workers and called on businesses to develop career opportunities that will let these women move up.

Miller said that far too many of the federal job training programs are geared to younger workers. "Midlife and older displaced homemakers will be in the labor force for 20 to 30 years," she said. "Training them is well worth the investment. With the impending shortage of younger workers, this is more than good public policy. It also makes good business sense."

Several bills have been introduced in Congress to develop more job training and education opportunities for displaced homemakers, and Rep. Constance A. Morella (R-Md.) has introduced a bill that would help them buy housing. For these women, success now depends, in a measure they never expected, not on what happens in their house but on what happens in Congress and the White House. They didn't intend for it to happen that way, but their biggest investments just didn't work out.