THE IMPORTANT thing to remember about the American Way of Welfare is that there isn't supposed to be any. It was conceived in the '30s as a sort of stopgap and has been with us ever since, but we still don't accept it. The most we will allow is that it is a temporary evil which will somehow, somebody, miraculously disappear. The planners of the New Deal, without knowing it, laid down the basic program for what we now call welfare, but the last thing they had in mind was the permanent support of people who lack money. One of their slogans was, "A program for the poor is a poor program."

That concept was still alive last week when the Carter administration unveiled the murky outlines of a "welfare" program which, basically, is another in a long series of efforts to get people off the rolls and into self-supporting jobs. Steady employment, even at low wages, is its goal. F. Ray Marshall, the secretary of labor, explained that the administration's plan would move people from welfare into public service jobs and ultimately into private employment. It was essentially the New Dealers' dream, 40 years later.

The explanation for their attitude begins with how Americans collectively view the poor, which is with a mixture of compassion and distaste. Officially, we reognize we must care for the needy and so this year we will spend more than $60 billion specifically for low-income people. But unofficially, we regard poverty as an alien culture. It isn't part of the American Dream, in which everyone clims determinedly into the middle class.

Frances Fox Pixen and Richard A. Cloward, in their book "Regulating the Poor," trace a history of American "loathing" of people on relief. In our ideology, they observe, "the economic system is open, and economic success is a matter of individual merit (and sometimes luck)." It follows, therefore, that "those who fail - the very poor - are therefore morally or personally defective." Such failure won't go on forever. The Bible tells us, "Ye have the poor always with you." But that is not The American Way. Our poor are supposed to go away. Starting Small

THE ASSUMPTION that the poor and their despised dole will somehow disappear undergirds much of the welfare planning of this century. Programs for the welfare class were designed and tinkered with on the understanding that they would wither away. That assumption was not attached to other social programs, such as Social Security or unemployment insurance. Thus, Social Security was constructed in 1935 as an automatic, self-perpetuating program to assist the elderly. It was not to be a program for the elderly poor, payments would go to rich and poor alike.

A minor, virtually unnoticed part of that 1935 act was something called Aid to Dependent Children, under which the federal government would supplement the states' old "Mothers' Aid" programs. The initial appropriation by the New Deal was $25 million for children rendered dependent by the death, desertion or mental incapacitation of a parent. Its planners had in mind the families of deceased coal miners. They assumed that problem would go away as widows were provided for in the new survivors' insurance program.

That didn't happen, of course. This fiscal year, the federal government and the states will spend nearly $10 billion on that title program's successor, Aid to Families With Dependent Children.

AFDC is "welfare," as most American see it, and it is in the history of that program that our attidues show through clearly. By the late 1950s, as refugees from Southern farms began seeking assistance, it was clear that welfare wasn't going to wither away. Therefore, it was decided that it should be made to wither away. Almost every welfare "reform" program of the past 15 years, both humane and punitive, was designed with the idea that the welfare rolls would eventually be done away with. A Variety of Approaches

IN 1962 came the social services approach in which welfare recipients were to be inundated in professional care ranging from prenatal medical aid to family therapy, all of it provided by a new corps of trained social workers. The poor were to be rehabilitated right up into the mainstream.

Abraham A. Ribicoff, then secretary of HEW, declared that this approach would move some out of welfare entirely, make others independent, and encourage all of their children to "grow strong in mind and body." Not much really happened, however, except for a sizable increase in the number of people on the rolls. Between 1961 and 1967, they grew from 3.5 million recipients to 5 million.

The next panacea, ordained by a hostile Congress in 1967, was work. The rolls would be gradually emptied by requiring recipients to go to work even though it was already recognized that a majority were families headed by women deserted by their husbands. Those were the volatile years in Congress when Sen. Russell Long (D-La.) was referring to the mothers as "brood mares" and suggesting that they were "filing up their homes with children" in order to get higher benefits. The result of all the table pounding and punitive amendments was a continued increase in the number on the welfare rolls.

Nothing seems to wither away except the hopes of welfare planners. The reason is that the planners continue to think of welfare cases as people who, with a bit of prodding and incentive, ought to go to work, people who can be trained, educated and motivated up into the mainstream. If they don't, something is wrong with them.

It is a fundamental misreading of the kind of people who are poor in the United States. A large minority of the poor are people not normally expected to work - children, disabled, mothers with young children. Another large group consists of people who do work but don't make enough money to escape being poor. "Poor Americans either work full-or part-time, or are people no civilized society would compel to work," HEW Secretary Joseph A. Califano observed recently. Pressure from Below

BUT THERE was another reason the welfare rolls rose rapidly in the 1960s: The poor, inadvertently assisted by the federal government, wheeled, pushed, shoved, picketed, sued and agitated their way onto the rolls in record numbers. In the tumult of the burning cities and militant protests, government (national and local) was forced to give the poor something to stem their rage and the easiest thing to give them was easier access to welfare.

Great Society anti-poverty agencies were often in the forefront of the agitation, creating the curious situation in which a government devoted to reducing the rolls financed many of the lawsuits and storefront organizations which opened the rolls even wider. Down came the man-in-the-house rule, out went vote residency requirements, and the word was spread to local administrators to lower the barriers and take all reasonable applications.

Authors Piven and Cloward believe thatthe government used welfare as the total of appeasement for black welfare applicants because it could not meet other social demands without alienating whites. They write:

"In other words, while the Great Society agencies often attempted to make gains for blacks in housing and health care and education and employment, resistance was stiff and sometimes virulent, for other groups in the cities had major stakes in these services and resources. But there were few other major groups in the cities with direct and immediate interests in welfare. (Giving welfare was also cheaper, at least in the short run, than building housing, for example.) Consequently, relief-giving turned out to be the most expeditious way to deal with the political pressures created by a dislocated poor, just as it had been many times in the past."

In the same period, another welfare program - food stamps - began growing suddenly for the same reason as AFDC: a response to pressures in the streets. The food stamp program, in 1968, was a minuscule pilot plan to help the poor get good food at lower-than-usual cost. That year, the Poor People's March on Washington, led by the Rev. Ralph Abernathy, demanded free food stamps to eradicate hunger and mounted large-scale protests at the Department of Agriculture, which - then as now - administered the program.

Rodney E. Leonard, then an assistant to Secretary Orville Freeman, recently recalled the result of those pressures. Word had come from the White House to give something to the marchers - inexpensively.

"If the Johnson administration was to do anything in response, it would be the Department of Agriculture," Leonard said. "We had to come up with a package which would allow the march to seem successful without raising the budget. We could maybe play around with $200 million, but no real big new programs. We had to come up with something that would let Abernathy claim that something had been accomplished. They were asking for free food stamps, but we knew Congress wouldn't swallow that. So when Freeman and I were going to the Hill in a car, I said let's see it [the purchase price] as low as we can. I said we should lower it to 50 cents for the poor-training program and incentives to work, but they would be secondary. The important thing would be an equitable cash payment for the poor, most of whom would not be immediately expected to work.

The cash-assistance plan was anathema to others in the Carter administration who saw it as more of the permanent dole. Packer, in the Labor Department, exest. And so we did and that was when the food stamps took off."

At the time, food stamps were costing the federal government about $115 million. This year the program will cost about $5.6 billion. A 289 Per Cent Growth

IT IS startling now to look back on the mid-1960s and measure the changes in welfare, broadly defined to mean that array of government services and cash which go exclusively to people who are officially poor. The federal government and the states paid out $2 billion in 1967 for families with dependent children. They will pay $9.9 billion this year. Medicaid, which provides medical care for low-income families, was $1.9 billion then. Now it is $16.6 billioN. There were no basic-opportunity grants to help educate college students from poor families. Nearly $2 billion will be spent for them this year.

Some of the programs were deliberately planned and executed by the Johnson administration and added to by Nixon's. Others grew haphazardly, almost by accident,under pressure of protests and riots. Whatever the reason, the overall growth was immense. Between 1968 and 1976, according to the Congressional Research Service, the benefits rose from $16.1 billion to $62.9 billion - an increase of 289 per cent.

Because each of the programs was planned separately, all fit together poorly and the result is the widely proclaimed "welfare mess." Some argue that its shortcomings are minor and easily repaired. But built into the awkward system are gaps and inequities that affront common sense and scrape abrasively on our sense of social justice. Some of the poor receive almost nothing others can milk the system for considerable benefits.

The National Journal recently analyzed who gets what fromthe five major welfare programs and came up with a dismal tale of geographical inequity. In New York State, for example, $2,859 was spent from federal, state and local sources for every person with an income below the official poverty line. In Wyoming, it was only $370. Regionally, only $784 was spent in the South per poverty person while in the Northeast, it was $2,426. In roughly the same period, the number of poor persons increased by 1.7 million and their proportion in the population remained about the same.

The reasons for the inequities vary. Some states have tight application policies designed to discourage participation; some have been historically generous. Some states set high benefit levels; some set low ones. Some states try to conceal the fact that benefits are available at all; others advertise them extensively.

Leonard, who is now director of the Community Nutrition Institute, a non-profit comsumer advocacy organization, estimates that nationally only about half of the people legally eligible for food stamps actually receive them. But in Massachusetts, which has a lively public information program,between 70 and 30 per cent of the eligible participate. Encouraging Idleness

ALSO BUILT into the network is a positive incentive to remain on welfare permanently, the very reverse of what two generations of reformers have intended. Of all the ironies in welfare, the most peculiar is the one which perpetuates a system everyone says is supposed to wither away. It simply is not to the advantage of amny recipients to give up welfareand go to work.

The fact is that earning income on a job may make one ineligible for a much higher return of government cash and services. A family receiving AFDC benefits is automatically eligible for both food stamps and Medicaid, the total value of which easily come to $6,000 or $7,000 in a Northern state. A full-time job at the minimum wage [about $4,800 annually] would trip the wire that guarantees AFDC and in turn loses the family its free medical care and low-cost food.

It also is widely accepted now that the AFDC rules do encourage the father to desert his family so that its members may be better cared for on welfare. The result is to creat more female-headed families, the very opposite of welfare purposes. A subcommittee of the congressional Joint Economic Committee found extensive evidence of this in a major study three years ago. It found that " a man with a wife and two children who worked at $2 an hour could increase the income of his family by an average of $2,158 annually by deserting them." That was the difference in AFDC cash and food stamps available to the mother and children if the father left home.

There are, too, cases in which the clever recipient can put together a variety of the welfare programs, earn a little money in a part-time job (but not enough to lose eligibility) and come off better than his next-door neighbor who works full time. Welfare really isn't the "haven for the chiselers and rip-off artists" that former Treasury Secretary William E. Simon once denounced. But there are enough cases of welfare recipients getting more than workers to create some fierce hostilities.

Arnold Packer, an assistant secretary of the labor, believes the resentment is intense and widespread. "There's no way that the Archie Bunkers of the world are not going to be hostile, when they're busting their tail in a cab for $10,000, when they see someone else getting $7,000 to $8,000 for doing nothing." Packers aid recently. "Not all people see it that way, not the upper middle class anyway. If you're making $50,000, that sort of thing doesn't make much difference, but if you're making $6,000 and paying taxes to support someone making $7,000, it does. It's a lingering resentment, like the resentment that the middle class has of loopholes in taxes for the riches." Cash or Work?

THE CARTER administration was sharply divided over what route it would take to welfare reform and the division was along familiar lines: cash or work. HEW had favored a cash-assistance plan that, initially, would have guaranteed the family of four a basic benefit of about $4,350 a year. The money would come from phasing out such existing welfare programs as AFDC food stamps, supplemental security income (SSI) and a low-income housing supplement. There would be a [WORD ILLEGIBLE] his deep philosophic reservations like this: "We can't just tell people they're a member of an underclass and that all we can do for them is to make it less painful . . . It's an alternative that I don't think we can accept."

Packer and others supported a plan that emphasized putting recipients to work. It would guarantee every family with children a job, public or private, and would insist on a strong work requirement for all AFDC recipients, including mothers whose children have reached the age of 12. With day-care centers for the children, serious job training and jobs that lead to something better, he believes, many on welfare will want to work.

History appears to run against him. Previous work-incentive programs have flopped. The job training-usually is haphazard and the number of women who switch from welfare to work is small.

Some authorities believe that neither the cash-assistance plan nor the put-'em-to-work concept is the answer. Instead of such drastic overhauling,they favor an incremental approach of tinkering with the present system, which they believe is not as messy as critics contend. Richard Nathan of the Brookings Institution, the spokesman for "incrementalism," notes the rapid expansion of most social welfare programs since the late 1960s and concludes that support for the poor has increased so much that nothing radically different needs to be done. The growth of food stamps, he observes, put more money into the system for the poor and the near-poor than the most liberal version of President Nixon's aborted family assistance plan would have done. He believes that eliminating the purchase price for food stamps, thereby opening the program to the very poorest, and establishing national standards for AFDC benefits would plug the most glaring gaps.

Carter chose the substance of the Labor Department plan, with its strong bent for putting people to work. The emphasis, said the President, is on jobs. Under the plan, as outlined by Marshall to reporters, any family with children will be assured of a job - a government created job if necessary. Most of the other details were missing, but the planners have plenty of time to fill them in. Carter said the plan won't be implemented for four more years.

That's probably just as well, because Congress seems unready to embark on any grandiose welfare revision. There is no consensus building. Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd says there will be welfare reform this year. The Carter administrations, devoted to balancing the budget by 1981, is wary of a program with a big price tag. Governors and local officials don't want anything that doesn't take the cost burden off their backs. Welfare groups fear that any change is liable to hurt them in some way.

"On the surface, it seems people are pretty close together," one veteran of welfare fights on the Hill said recently: "Everyone talks of some combination of jobs and cash. But when you get close, everything seems to fall apart. Everyone thinks his own goose is going to be cooked."

Sen. Ribicoff, a participant in welfare reform conflicts for nearly 15 years, is the most pessimistic this time around. There is no constituency for reform this year he said in a recent interview, and among members of Congress the lack of interest is greater than ever.

"It pricks at their consciences and people turn away from things that prick them," he said. "There's more indifference to welfare today than at anytime in history.

"Out of sight, out of mind."