"Illegitimate," said Betty Cohens, spitting the word more than speaking it. "If I could, I'd strike 'illegitimate' out of every dictionary in the world. It's the worst label you can give a person."

She knows. Betty Cohens and a man she never married had two children. Both are illegitimate, at least as far as most of the world is concerned.

"That really bothers me," Cohens said. "It upsets me something awful. It means they're not legal, that they don't have a name.But that's just not so. They do have a father, they do have a name, they are legal."

She paused and took a deep breath. The tight knot between her heavy brows loosened and disappeared. "I've never seen the reason for marriage," said Cohens, 27. "I'm honest about this with my kids. The main thing is that they be taken care of. And they are. They're fine."

The main thing is that the children be taken care of. That sentiment is a central thought, widely expressed and deeply held in Washington's public housing projects, as in other parts of the city with concentrations of poor, black residents.

"How often has one heard that black woman have too many illegitimate babies? How often has one heard that black woman should be forced to practice birth control? What such questions overlook is the fact that in the black community there is no such thing as an illegitimate child."

"The children are loved and cared for by the entire community. It is everyone's job to protect the children. And the children, in turn, feel that the whole community is their parents."

Among other observations, Hill noted:

"A full 90 percent of black children born out of wedlock are kept by their families. It may be the real mother, the grandmother, an aunt, but someone in the immediate family. Only 10 per cent are put up for adoption. But among whites, a full two-thirds of children born outside marriage are put up for adoption."

According to the most recent figures published by the National Center for Health Statistics, 258,000 children were born in 1976 to unmarried black women and 197,100 to unmarried whites.

The loving, forgiving and accepting attitude project people have about children born outside marriage serves to bind them together. It also serves to separate them from the middle-class white - and black - community.

That, too, seems acceptable to Cohens and most women in her position. "The rules that white society set up don't mean a damned thing," she said. "My society doesn't say 'marriage first and children second.' I never let what other people think of me influence me."

Many people seem to think project people are promiscuous fornicators, producing babies in order to increase their monthly welfare checks. "Not a dime, not one dime would I give to those lazy bums, drinking all day, making babies all night," an angry telephone caller shouted after reading the first in this series of articles. The anonymous called identified herself as "black, poor, clean and hardworking."

Dozens of other callers and letterwriters have expressed similar sentiments. Most have said they are black and consider the behavior of the project people detrimental to black as a whole.

Whatever the view of those individuals who have called or written, they have left no doubt that the tightly related issues of illegitimacy and welfare are extremely sensitive and highly charged.

Hill viewed the differences between middle-class blacks and projects people, especially regarding the illegitimacy issue, in terms of values. The standards of middle-class blacks, he said, approximate those of their white counterparts.

But this middle-class "respectability" generally is rejected by project people. Among them exists a different morality - not immorality or amorality but a set of standards not shared by the community at large.

"Among poor blacks, and particularly among unmarried black women who are heads of households, there is a different morality than exists in the mainstream of American life," Hill said in an interview at his downtown Washington headquarters."It's not preferred, but it's a condition accepted much more readily."

The morality of the project people is built around children - it is better for the child to have a mother and father married to each other. But if a child is born outside marriage, then, as Betty Cohens put it, "that child didn't ask to be born, and it should be raised with love by its mama or its daddy or whoever can do it best."

Like many of her women acquaintances, she did not know about or practice birth control before she became pregnant. Nor did she consider abortion. Why, she was asked, does a woman continue having children when she knows she must turn to public assistance for their support?

"I love children," she stated simply. "We all love children," interjected Cohen's friend, Kimi Gray. "Every woman and man, too, I know loves lots of babies."

Gray and Cohens insisted that they turned to welfare only at times of unusual stress. "We'd rather work than survive on public assistance," Cohens said, "and most of us do whenever we can." Work and welfare for many project people, alternate erratically with each other.

The most recent Social Security Administration figures show that of 3.4 million households receiving Aid to Families with Dependent Children throughout the United States, 50.2 percent were white and 44.3 percent were black.

Nationally, about 60 percent of all children born to unmarried parents receive some form of public assistance at some time. William Gray of the D.C. Department of Human Resources said 31,639 city households currently receive AFDC funds. This includes 2,548 mothers who work and receive supplemental incentive payments from the government.

"In terms of dollars and cents," Gray said, "they do better when they work and get the incentive payments than just working and getting the welfare check." But, as one unmarried mother at Greenleaf Gardens project explained, "you do best by collecting your check and working on the quiet. That's common practice."

Dr. Wade W. Nobles, a black research scientist at San Francisco's Westside Community Mental Health Center, wrote in a recent study for the Deparment of Health. Education and Welfare that few blacks seriously weighed repercussions of having children whatever their martial or financial status.

"Black children learn that regardless of what they do or become, 'mama', love and prayers' will always be theirs," Nobles wrote.

According to Nobles and Hill, the unmarried mother is assured of that love from her mother as is the illegitimate child from its mother and grandmother.

Nobles says he traces the roots of the child-oriented morality to Africa. "Our literary research has highlighted the importance of children in the African world view," he wrote. "Procreation and socialization, along with extending the family immortality, suggest that children are the major focus of the Afro-American family."

Hill says polygamy, a common and legal practice in many west African societies, has survived the years of slavery and commonly is practiced among "a large number" of poor.

Among the project people, an astonishingly large amount of African and kinship values remain in force. And it seems the poorer the person, the more dominant are these characteristics.

There is the communal recollection of slavery and varied perceptions of its influence on "racism" and other aspects of poor black life today.

"I think one reason you find so many young black men getting women pregnant without marrying them, "is that during slave days they picked the strongest men to use as studs. And that set the stage for today," one male project dweller said.

Thus, a white journalist who has spent weeks talking to project dwellers found that most live according to their own set of standards in a society as different from that of mainstream America as that of many peoples he encountered during a decade of work in Asia.

For example, the "extended family" comprising a wide range of relatives, near and distant, is as vital a force in the projects as it is in India where families spanning two and even three generations and living under one roof are commonplace.

In the projects, "doubling-up - which is illegal - is just as common. City housing authority officials admit that they have no idea how many unregistered relatives live in project apartments but they think there are thousands.

Unlike the Indian extended family, the black version frequently includes friends. In many cases, if not living in the same apartment, these friends exchange vital items, such as food, refrigerators and cash, in times of stress."We depend on each other a great deal," said Diane Moore of the Potomac Gardens project.

But, according to Andrew Bradley, director of the Elderly Anti-Victimization Project of the National Center on Black Aged, the essential difference between Indian and Black extended families is their focus.

Indians, and some other Asians, raise large families mainly as a form of social security for aging parents. "Among African-Americans," Bradley said, "the emphasis is on raising those children in a loving home, whether their mother and father are married or not."

Betty Cohens' early experience clearly illustrates that point. Reared at Kenilworth Courts, a National Capital Housing Project in the far reaches of northeast Washington, she had two babies while she was still in high school. "My mama took care of them so I could graduate," she recalled.

Cohens is one year from graduating from the University of the District of Columbia. She has moved a few blocks from Kenilworth Courts to a subsidized apartment development ironically named Paradise Manor.

Her two children now live with their father, his girlfriend and her son in suburban Maryland. "It's working out marvelously," Cohens said over coffee in her cramped apartment, not noticeably different from a project flat.

"The kids are happy and getting good grades. His lady treats them nicely, like her own. She never beats them." Then, with a touch of softness in her voice, she said, "their father is one of the good men in this world. He's better able to care for them than I am. He's got a good-paying job, and he wanted them in his household. That's rare with black men."

The place of black men in project families, and assessments of the men by black women, is a sensitive issue fraught with confused emotionalism.

"Black men don't know how to take care of a wife and family," said Kimi Gray, a longtime Kenilworth Courts resident. "They're not trained that way. They're always taken care of - first by their mothers and then by us.

"So, we're always alone or with a lover, because black men are always lovers - they're loved by their mothers and by us."

A few moments later, she said: "The trouble isn't with the men; it's with us. We put them on a pedestal, and then we tear them down. They don't go to work because we allow they to lie in bed. And then we destroy them. We're our own worst enemies."

Reflecting on her own marriage and child-rearing - three children before her marriage at age 16, two more children and divorce at 19 - Gray, now 33, said:

"My husband was a spoiled brat.He earned decent money as a construction worker. Then he spent it on drinking and buying shoes, and I didn't even know that (shoe store) existed."

"I listened to my mama, and I stayed with him. Then the pressure of family life built up, and he couldn't take it. I told him to leave, but I don't hate him and I don't hold anything against him, though my five babies and I have been on public welfare, on and off, ever since."

Betty Cohens' mother had advice for her, too, but she did not take it. "My mama told me to take my boyfriend to court and sue him for child support," she recalled. "But I felt that we made the babies together and, if he wants to help care for them or not, it's up to him to be responsible and be a man. Taking a man to court is something white women do. Not me."

Interestingly, a growing number of black men from the projects are involved in raising children. Just as Cohens' son and daughter living with their father, another black man, who asked not to be identified, keeps his 4-year-old son at home in Kenilworth Courts.

Another Kenilworth resident William Stephens, said he "would do anything to bust those kids out and take care of them myself." He was speaking of two children he fathered by a woman already married to another man-a drug addict and alcoholic.

Stephens, not his real name, said he fathered two more children by yet another woman. "Yeah, I help them all out," he replied to a question. "Whenever the mothers call up and ask for something I send it over."

Stephens, 36, a school custodian who is burly and bearded and wears an earring, said he did not believe in birth control or abortion, "out of my own moral convictions." Although not a regular churchgoer he said, he realizes that the church considers illegitimacy a sin."

But in the case of his first two children, he said, "there was love, strong love, on both sides, her and me. So I say the hell with any 'illegitimate,' the hell with any label that's been around since time began. I'm not ashamed, and I don't consider what I did immoral."

On the issue of weather having children out of wedlock is antisocial, Stephens, Harrison and their friends, Charlie Green, concurred that "9 times out of 10" having children was the woman's idea. "Most of them do it either because they think the child will make the man stay with them, or else it's because they want that monthly (welfare) check," Harrison said.

The experts, as well as the women, disagree. "I don't think any mother consciously pursues the goal of having more children in order to get a larger check," said DHR's Gray. "She just doesn't get that much more money. Any woman who'd do that would have to be mentally unbalanced."

The monthly increment for each child is about $50.

In explanation, if not defense, of the project male's role, Green, 64, a retired maintenance worker at the Senate Office building, said:

"Nowadays, we're not teaching youngsters the moral aspects of life. When I was coming along, we went to church and Sunday school and learned that sex was not a toy to play around with.

"But now, poor blacks folks are caught in a vicious cycle. There's no daddy at home to set a good example for a young boy coming up. So, that young boy sees what's going on all around him here on the property and he thinks, 'Hell, that's the way things are.' And he goes out and gets him a gal."

How many children had he fathered, a reporter asked Green, who has never married. "Whoosh," he answered with a broad grin. "I never kept no score. But I always did help support those I knew about. Any man who doesn't do that is immoral. That's immorality far as I'm concerned."

Harrison, 29 and a college graduate, explained the twin phenomena of illegitimacy and households headed by women in a way that sought to bridge the gap between the project people and those on the outside looking in:

"Young ladies here on the property, and young men too, they have limited horizons. They feel most comfortable with people like themselves, and so they stay here instead of going outside to meet other people and learn other views.

"Without new ideas, on marriage and having children, among a host of other things, we have no positive models. We're all jumped together here. And so we go on, from generation to generation, doing what we see the others around us doing.

"But most important from the male point of view, is that most young men here on the property never get a break in life. They lose their sense of responsibility because, after all, what is there for young black fellows to look forward to?"

Many white social scientists, and some blacks, traditionally have explained the phenomenon of black households headed by women with the claim that black women are "dominant" and that they "emasculate" their men.

Urban League research director Hill takes a more positive view. "The self-reliance of black women who are the primary breadwinners of their families best exemplifies . . . adapt-ability of family roles," he wrote in his book, "The Strength of Black Families." "The low remarriage rate among these women can be partly explained by the greater self-confidence they have in being able to function as the head of the family."

In a conversation, though, Hill said that "there's more of a role for men in these households than is generally perceived. There are many husbands who are divorced or separated from their wives but continue to see their children and to help out. In addition, there are uncles, grandparents, boyfriends, social workers, neighbors, friends, all of whom help provide a male image for the children."

The role of boyfriends among project families frequently is criticized, much of it with sneers in the white and black middle classes. "I know they say our boyfriends - we call them Jodies - live off our welfare checks, but that's a bunch of bull," Kim Gray said.

"There's just not enough money in a welfare check to care for a family and take care of Jodie, too. In fact, Jodie usually helps out with some extra money when he can. And when the welfare people find out about it, they cut our payments. So, we're forced to lie about that, too."

At Kenilworth Courts, where about 25 of the 422 households have men heading them, Gray said a few women, "no more than 2 out of 50," got pregnant regularly in order to raise their welfare payments. "A few others do it because they're on drugs or just plain dumb," she continued, "and a few just got their head in the bed. But most of us, we just want love and companionship."

Research scientist Nobles' explanation of how poor black men and women view each other and are viewed by outsiders goes directly to the African experience. The African woman's function "emphasized her role of ensuring the continuity of life," Nobles wrote, and this brought her special recognition. In America, he added, this was misconstrued into "female dominance."

The basic flaw in reaching this conclusion, according to Nobles, is that white sociologists have ignored the African influence on the black American family and examined it as if it "were nothing more than a dark-skinned white family."

This approach, among other shortcomings, tends to denigrate the central role of children in black life, particularly among the poorest families, such as those in the projects of Washington.

To illustrate, Hill related the following statistics: 36 percent of all black households in the United States are headed by women. The lower the income, the higher the proportion, so that 62 percent of households earning less than $5,000 a year are headed by women. By comparison, only 15 percent of those black families earning $15,000 or more annually are headed by women.

Among whites, 11 percent of all families are headed by women. At the $5,000 annual income level, women head 37 percent of families; at $15,000 and above, the statistic is 5 percent.

"I think my life would have been a little different if I didn't have my two kids," Cohens admitted. "The plan I set for myself didn't include children. I planned to go out of town to college and then get a good job in the recreation field. So, I guess you could say I had a minor setback. But no regrets. None."

Kim Gray is more forceful. "My five babies are my backbone. If it weren't for them. I don't know where I'd be, what I'd be doing. I'd be lost."

As for the next generation, "it's up to them," she said simply. "I know I don't want them to get into any trouble. And I'd like them to be better off than I am financially. But the rest? Like I said, it's up to them."