VIRGINIA HAS reduced its welfare rolls by more than 40 percent in the past several years, and its program was relatively lean or stingy, take your pick, even before that process began. The figures suggest that even in a strong economy, a fair amount of pressure has been placed on former recipients to leave the rolls. The pressure comes with a price -- a sharp increase in demand for subsidized child care.

The state, to its credit, has committed some of the necessary funds, but not enough -- not as much as, in our judgment, it either could or should. Because of a kink in the funding pattern, some Northern Virginia and other jurisdictions suddenly find themselves without enough money to continue supporting all the low-wage families whose child care costs they were helping to defray. They are sending out letters threatening to drop some. Not all the affected mothers are former welfare recipients, but it isn't clear how or why the society should draw a distinction between those who have or have not been on welfare. All are in the same boat -- heads of household who make too little money to afford the child care they must have to remain at work, as the society wants them to. In Virginia as in other states, there is surplus welfare money being held for a rainy day, some of which could be used instead for child care. The Gilmore administration should see to the shift.

The mismatch between the need and appropriation for child care was masked last year. Not all counties were prepared to spend their full allotments. That left extra for others, as in Northern Virginia, that needed more. Now the lagging counties seek their shares, and the others find themselves overcommitted and stranded. Some welfare money does need to be set aside against the day when the economy weakens. That's because the states themselves are now on fixed allotments from the federal government. The likely future inadequacy of those is one of the great weaknesses of the welfare "reform" in which the president concurred three years ago.

But the welfare rolls have declined more than either Congress or the states anticipated when the state allotments were fixed in 1996. If the state wants low-income moms to work, it has to help them. There is room to provide more help than it is providing now.