THERE IS A HUGE debate in this country about why so many people continue to be poor. But whatever the reasons, and whatever the numbers, there is too much poverty in America.

What should our strategy be to reduce poverty? In an economy which is not producing enough decent jobs, adequate money and support from government are necessities for those who cannot find work, and for those who work for too little. But that is not enough. We must also have a genuine strategy to prepare people to work and give everyone a fair chance at available jobs.

Poverty has gotten precipitously worse in the past five years, after diminishing steadily in the '60s and remaining about the same for most of the '70s. Indeed, poverty among the non-elderly increased in the '70s. The elderly, disproportionately poor in the past, benfited quite spectacularly from the indexing of Social Security and the enactment of Supplemental Security Income (SSI). But the 20 million new jobs which appeared in the '70s did not stretch far enough to reach everyone of working age.

The historic victims of discrimination -- blacks, Hispanics and women -- did not get their fair share. Blacks and Hispanics found themselves competing in the job market, too often unsuccessfully, with an unprecedented wave of new immigrants, baby boomers and middle-class women. Young people, especially, experienced higher unemployment; and the jobs they got paid less.

Things got worse still starting in 1979. Inflation outpaced the wages of poor people who worked, and the benefits of those who didn't. The ensuing recessions lifted unemployment to levels that are still higher than they were in the late '70s. The Reagan tax and budget cuts hurt the poor. The minimum wage lost ground to inflation and poor people who work paid a much bigger chunk of their income in federal taxes.

Families on welfare have been taking it on the chin all along. Those relying on the main income-support programs -- food stamps and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) -- lost 22 percent of their real benefits between 1970 and 1983 as a result of inflation, because AFDC is not indexed. In states with the lowest benefits, welfare and food stamps combined provide an income barely exceeding a third of the poverty line.

In sum, the last 20 years have produced a black and Hispanic middle class -- an achievement of which we should be enormously proud -- but, with all the changes in the economy and the society, the country does not offer enough decent jobs, is not distributing the ones we have fairly, and is not providing enough help to those for whom there is no work.

If there are not enough decent jobs to go around, we ought at least to do more to add to the incomes, and lessen the tax burden, of people who either have substandard jobs or none at all. Certainly we ought to do as well as we were doing not all that long ago.

At the same time, however, we should pursue a strategy that enables us to reduce our reliance on welfare and other cash transfers to the extent possible, while concentrating on putting people to work.

Strange as it may seem after 20 years of antipoverty efforts, that idea has never really been put into practice. Obviously, when there are more jobs available, more people will work.

Economic growth is, of course, crucial. But it is not enough. People must be trained and prepared to take the jobs. They must be in the right place to take advantage of them. If they are parents with young children, they may need day care so they can work. And they must be protected from discrimination.

In the 1980s, there will be fewer new job seekers. Even so, the black and Hispanic youth who have stayed at the back of the line for the past 30 years may well do no better if steps are not taken to make it more likely that they will be sufficiently prepared.

Opportunity -- genuinely equal opportunity -- is at the heart of the necessary strategy. It is a traditional American value -- traditional enough to have become a conservative Republican slogan -- but it is not one that we have applied fully as yet, despite affirmative action and even after two decades of experience under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

We have never had a real opportunity strategy for those who do not go to college, especially those who are black or Hispanic. We have done reasonably well in opening up higher education. Federal aid to low-income students, and community colleges that accept all comers, have made a big difference, though we have slipped recently. But we have failed miserably -- really ever since World War II -- in providing the jobs and training that add up to an opportunity strategy for those who are not college bound.

The symptoms and the results are all around us. The unemployment rates of minority teen-agers are high. But figures on minority employment tell an even more dramatic story: 47.4 percent of white teens employed against 35.9 percent of Hispanics and 24.4 percent of blacks. Less than one in 10 black teen-agers hold a full-time job.

The disparities persist into adulthood. Of black men of working age, only 54 percent have work, compared with 78 percent of white men.

The first part of an updated antipoverty strategy involves keeping some things that have worked, and which can be put under the broad heading of prevention. Most important is reaching children in poor families while they are young enough. Prevention is the best investment. It pays the highest returns. Yet we have been absolutely tightfisted in funding it.

Head Start is a program that even the Reagan administration supports. It involves bringing poor children into pre-kindergarten settings where they can receive the same kind of early preparation that other children get as a matter of course. It works. A 20- year, federally-funded study of children in an early Head Start prototype in Ypsilanti, Mich., showed impressive results in terms of higher rates of employment, and reduced welfare, crime and teen-age pregnancy. Yet government figures show Head Start reaches only 18 percent of the poor children between the ages of 3 and 5. Why? There is no good answer.

Prenatal and infant health care prevent illness and handicapping conditions which can keep people from being fully productive. Study after study shows at least $2 saved in late costs for every dollar spent on prenatal care for women who would otherwise not receive it. It is no coincidence that the nation's downward trend in infant mortality began only after Medicaid, the main program of medical care for the indigent. Yet Medicaid and the other relevant health programs have been cut, and the health situation of the poor is worsening in many locales.

Federally-financed help in reading and math for poor children in the early grades also works. The gap between black and white 9-year-olds on national reading tests narrowed during the '70s, and an analysis by the Education Commission of the States showed that a disproportionate part of that achievement occurred in schools served by the federal Title I (now Chapter I) education program. Yet that program now reaches nearly half a million fewer children than it did four years ago.

Prevention is a state and local responsibility, too. The state of South Carolina and city of Atlanta are both raising educational standards with money and massive, community- based initiatives. This is the way to really prepare young people for work and jobs.

When young people in poverty reach their teens, they are caught in a vicious circle. It is hard to convince them to stay in school if they see no job, and no opportunity, at the end of the road. But when they drop out, they are even less likely to make it.

The transition to adulthood is, therefore, a key time with regard to cycles of poverty. People become poor at other times in their lives for different reasons -- divorce, a plant closing, long-term illness -- but failure to get into the job market in the first place may well be the key reason for chronic poverty.

The problem is certainly complicated. Among other things, we have to overcome the reluctance of employers to hire graduates of inner city high schools that have a reputation for being inadequate, at the same time that we strive to improve the quality of those schools. We also have to overcome the negative attitudes and expectations of many of the young people themselves. This, most emphatically, is a factor that we cannot afford to regard as unchangeable.

What are the elements of a program to help teen-agers enter the job market more successfully? One is more attention to basic skills in high schools, backed with federal and local investments.

A second is getting the schools to work more closely with local employers, who are ideally suited to teach young people how to apply for jobs and accept supervision, as well as to design courses and perhaps even provide extra teaching personnel. These seem obvious steps, but it is sometimes surprising how little schools have done to acquaint students with the world of work, and astonishing how distant "downtown" is from the inner city high school.

A third element is expanding the Job Corps, which has a good track record, and a fourth is improving vocational education.

However, there are at least two major new steps we should take. Both involve a fresh approach to the crucial question of motivation. They would involve a quid pro quo between young people and society. Both would guarantee a job -- but only in return when the student had fulfilled his or her educational responsibilities.

One idea would guarantee a part-time job to low-income students on condition that they stay in school and perform satisfactorily. If they have already dropped out, they could obtain the job only by returning to school or a high-school equivalency course.

To accomplish this, Congress might begin by connecting a significant part of the federal summer jobs program to year-round part-time jobs made available on condition that the participant stays in school. The program should be offered to young people whom school counselors and teachers identify as potential dropouts. For young women who have already had children, the job offer should be coupled with day care.

The work experience, especially if it is in the private sector, will not only motivate the students but also serve as a credential when they seek jobs in the private sector on their own later on.

Something similar to this idea was tried in a number of cities during the Carter administration, with some success. Students took the jobs -- an encouraging sign in its own right -- and a follow-up evaluation showed that the experience was useful in making the transition to a working life. What is unfortunate at present is that even though it is perfectly possible in states and localities to use current federal job training funds for this type of program, few are doing so.

Even after a guranteed-job-for-education program is introduced, however, we must still face up to the fact that black and Hispanic youth stay unemployed at astronomical levels until they reach 21 or 22, at which point their unemployment rate is "only" twice that for whites.

Thus, cutting through the vicious circle may also require some kind of federally-funded job guarantee to young people, but only if they have completed their education or training and still cannot find work. There is certainly real work to be done. The Urban Institute and the American Institutes of Research have identified more than 1 million useful jobs that could be performed by nonprofessional workers -- in education, care of the elderly and handicapped, energy, environment, conservation, family service, day care, law enforcement and corrections. Not all these are suitable for minority youth, but enough are.

Such a carefully targeted guarantee should be extended as well to the long-term unemployed of the inner city and the Rust Belt. Even if people who participate in the guarantee program still cannot find permanent employment later on, the program will still be worthwhile to society if the work performed was useful.

An opportunity strategy would not end with the beginning of adulthood. Massachusetts is getting very good results from its Employment Training Program, nicknamed "E.T.," which trains welfare recipients and finds regular jobs for them. This is not "workfare." Participants are volunteers and there is no requirement that welfare recipients join the program.

If jobs are at the heart of our antipoverty strategy, we need to find and seek to remove all the barriers to working. One, for women in particular, is the absence of child care. Last year 46.4 percent of women with infants under one year old were working, a 52 percent increase since 1976. This is a spectacular number. The time for debating the merits of women with small children working is long past. In most cases, women work to feed their families.

The schools are one obvious place to establish day care centers for the whole community. Yet, according to a study by the House Select Committee on Children, Youth and Families, only 100 out of the 15,000 school systems in America provide any before or after-school day care for local families. Moreover, only 1,500 of the nation's 6 million employers assist their employes with day care, and most of those provide only referral services.

Federal policy to encourage the development of additional day care for those for whom its absence is a barrier to work should include a significant increase in the amount of money the federal government gives the states to pay for social services, a major part of which goes for day care.

All families already receive a tax credit for a portion of their day care expenses. But people who pay no taxes cannot use this credit. We should consider giving them their credit in the form of a direct cash payment.

Is the foregoing a complete anti-poverty program? No. I have not even begun to discuss the plight of workers whose companies have closed down or moved elsewhere, or of people who have lost their disability benefits as a result of thoughtless Reagan policies. Nor have I discussed the kind of major economic development strategy for the inner cities that may be critical to breaking up concentrations of chronic poverty.

I recognize that the country is not in a mood for big, new spending programs, especially given the size of the deficit. But regardless of whether Congress enacts tax simplification legislation his year, it should certainly make sure that the poor are left no worse off from a tax point of view than a few years ago. And regardless of how Congress goes about dealing with the deficit, it should insure that there are at least modest increases in federal programs that can prevent cycles of poverty -- as well as in programs that provide cash and other help when there are not enough jobs.

How shall we convince the American people? The Catholic bishops are telling us we should help the poor because it is right, and I certainly agree with that. But we should also help the poor, especially young people, become productive workers because that is in our national self-interest.

We must invest in people because it will be more expensive not to. The costs in terms of welfare, prisons and other institutions are fairly obvious. Perhaps even more important, with fewer new workers entering the job market in the '80s, jobs may be lost to the country as a whole if our own people are not trained and prepared to take them.

Perhaps we should think of the whole issue as though our individual retirement income were tied to the success of a particular young person. I wager every one of us would stop at almost nothing to invest in and assure the economic success of that person. That is as good a way as any to dramatize to our fellow citizens the stake they have in making a new effort to deal with the poverty that continues to hound us in the richest nation in the world.