ALLEGEDLY TO relieve the American people of a great and onerous burden of paper work, the White House wants to cut nearly half the questions out of the 1990 census. The Census Bureau had drawn up a list of questions similar to those that it asked in 1980, but ran into a buzz saw when it took them to the Office of Management and Budget for the required clearance.

OMB objects, for example, to the question that asks a woman how many babies she's had. This question, in one form or another, has been in every census since the turn of the century. The answers enable the Census Bureau to correlate fertility with a great many other things -- income, employment, education, ethnic group and the rest. The census reports its data by small areas, making it invaluable to people running health and welfare agencies. Sometimes they use it in organizing family planning programs. Perhaps that's a part of the reason -- along with a desire to save women the time that it takes to answer the question -- that OMB wants it out.

OMB suggests getting rid of several questions about employment. Every month the Labor Department reports the unemployment rate; it's a percentage of the labor force. But only the census can tell you who's in the labor force and who's dropped out. Only the census can tell you much about the unemployed and the dropouts -- how old they are, whether they were looking for work, whether they ever had a job. If OMB prevails, some of that information won't be collected in 1990. That would make it harder, as some people in Congress have noted, to write job-training legislation.

Much the same can be said of the questions about housing that OMB wants deleted. Some of them collect information that the government itself uses in running the federal housing programs.

OMB is correct in saying that it takes time to fill out a census questionnaire -- perhaps 45 minutes, it estimates, if you get the long form that goes to every sixth household. Some people grumble about it, but nearly everyone dutifully completes it, and the answers are remarkably accurate. Together, the 96 million households' responses provide a rich and detailed self-portrait of this country's population, information available from no other source. The effect of cutting out these questions is to draw a veil over many kinds of social distress and make it much more difficult for Congress to address them intelligently. Congress is aware of this point, and OMB now has a fight on its hands. It deserves to lose.