PRESIDENT CLINTON is proposing to change the terms of the Family and Medical Leave Act, the first legislation he signed in 1993. The act, which had become a campaign issue when his predecessor vetoed it, requires employers to give employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave per year to care for newborn or newly adopted children or sick family members, or to recover from serious illnesses. The employees then have a right of return to their prior or comparable jobs.

The benefit has been heavily used and has caused little if any of the disruption opponents predicted. Mr. Clinton now would allow states to experiment with using their unemployment insurance systems to convert some of the leave from unpaid to paid. The leading argument in favor is that in its present form the law is of relatively little help to the lower-income women who may be most in need; without some form of replacement income, they can't afford to take the leave. A commission found that nearly one in eight were resorting to welfare, yet the current impulse at all levels of government is to induce such women to stay off welfare.

The question is whether an extension of unemployment insurance is the right solution. The states already clearly have authority to levy a tax and use the proceeds to provide any level of paid family and medical leave they wish. The president's order, which the administration hopes to make final within a couple of months, would merely allow them to do so in the familiar name and within the existing framework of unemployment insurance.

The advocates favor that in part because it's politically easier to stretch an existing system than to create a new one, and in part because, after more than eight years of uninterrupted economic growth, many states have built up fairly impressive unemployment insurance reserves. In some of those states, this is a simple fight about whether now to add a benefit or grant employers a cut in the underlying payroll tax.

But nationally, if not in every state, the unemployment insurance system is not in strong condition. The benefit structure and available resources have been allowed to deteriorate until they no longer do a decent job even of sustaining the unemployed through recessions, their traditional function. In the last recession, fewer than a third of unemployed workers were covered. To graft new obligations onto a system that can't -- or doesn't -- fulfill the obligations it already has may not make much sense.

The system needs to be reformed; it's not clear to us that paid family leave -- even the leave to care for a new child, which is the only kind this order would cover -- is the place to start. It's hard to quarrel with a regulation that seems to do no more than give the states an option they already may have, but this is a reach for more than that. Our instinct would be to means-test the benefit if it were added; provide it for the needy, but not as a matter of right to all. Many women now bear a heavy double burden in the society. They are breadwinners who also fulfill traditional responsibilities in the home. The politics and substance of that compound burden are what this fight is mainly about.

An argument can be made for using public resources to help lower-income women survive the competing responsibilities. There are better uses for those limited resources than to create a right to such help for women of greater means.