THE NATION HAS apparently lost patience with trying to cure the "welfare problem" with kindness. For over a decade, help for the poor has grown steadily. Straight welfare--cold hard cash--has lagged well behind the cost-of-living, but special kinds of aid--medical care, housing and food--have more than made up the gap.

Now most of these programs are being sharply reduced, presumably because the taxpayer feels they haven't worked. Since this will hurt many already miserable people, it is fair to ask: what alternatives might be pursued that would be as helpful to people now getting welfare, but better for the general taxpayer?

Welfare hasn't been a failure in all its forms. Because of it, there is less sheer misery in the country than there was a generation ago, especially among the elderly. And the number of people on welfare who are not elderly has not been growing in recent years--despite a generally bad economy and a very large increase in the youth population--thanks to smaller families and more jobs for women.

Other indicators, however, signal considerable failure. The number of children born to unwed women--teen-agers in particular--has grown dramatically. These children have frighteningly high chances of growing up on welfare, dropping out of school, getting in trouble with the law and raising welfare children of their own. There is heartbreaking waste in this cycle of which welfare costs are only a very small part.

The idea that more welfare is not the way to break this welfare cycle deserves some testing. It may very well be--and welfare recipients will tell you this themselves--that there is something indefinably different about money that you earn yourself as distinct from money that someone gives you. And this difference may change the way that adults and children on welfare think about themselves and their futures and how they act as a result.

There have been job programs for the poor--although only on a substantial scale for a few years. Most of them, however, steered clear of the welfare population on the mistaken notion that, since most welfare families are headed by women, work was of little relevance to their well-being. That idea is contradicted not only by the enormous recent success of women generally in the job market, but, more specifically, by the striking success of a variety of special projects--some of large scale--in moving welfare women and their families into steady jobs.

The Reagan administration is interested in getting people off welfare. Its policies call for stopping welfare and other aid to working poor families--even if that makes them worse off than they would be if they quit their jobs. It is also encouraging states to make families "work off" their welfare grants in makeshift jobs, hoping that will drive malingerers off the rolls (which it probably will) and develop good work habits and skills among the rest (which it probably won't). In the meantime, the Labor Department is phasing out its successful supported-work and job-finding programs for welfare mothers. If OMB gets its way on the 1983 budget, even WIN--the poorly funded but still useful program that finds jobs for welfare recipients in most parts of the country--will be gone.

That's not a good policy for anyone concerned--neither the taxpayers nor the poor. The administration has not yet developed an alternative to the employment policies of its predecessors. Perhaps, when it does, it will find room in that policy for a real attack on the welfare problem.