While many people have been touched by last year's budget cuts, no group has been so heavily affected as the nation's working poor. Singling out for punishment a group that is struggling to help itself strikes many people as perverse and self-defeating. Last fall, when changes in federal welfare and other aid went into effect, Montgomery County Executive Charles W. Gilchrist persuaded the county council to help local families hurt by the cutbacks.

Working with major employers, the county set up a program to help parents in welfare families who were scheduled to lose welfare and medical aid because their low-wage jobs now disqualified them for federal help. The county provided interim financial assistance, job-finding help and remedial training so that families could improve their earnings enough to offset their welfare losses.

The program didn't work for everyone. Working families frequently leave welfare, and many families either found jobs or had other changes that disqualified them for the program. Others refused to participate. Still others couldn't be helped because family circumstances, age or abilities made it impossible for them to increase their earnings by working more or getting better jobs; for this group, a continuing welfare supplement is the best answer. But in the five months that the program has been operating, 70 of the 289 families seeking help have been placed in jobs or in training for better-paid positions.

Other benefits are expected from the county's decision to use the working-poor program as a way to increase private-sector involvement in the job related programs--an effort begun in 1979. With federal aid for these programs also curtailed, the county is coordinating its activities in job placement, training and economic development to make sure they mesh to serve local employers' needs.

The county estimates that it will recoup the average $3,400 it spent on each of the 70 families within a year from welfare and Medicaid savings. In future years, savings should grow. Even more important, says Gilchrist's special assistant, Edmond F. Rovner, is the "inspirational gain"--the satisfaction of having put 70 families on the road to self-sufficiency.