Last week the front pages of this paper carried a three-part story of a welfare family in Philadelphia, a story only too typical of the millions of American families who move on and off welfare each year. Interestingly enough, there are no villains in the story, which writer Nicholas Lemann described as a "soap opera." Mary Manley, the 56-year-old mother of the family, is a hard-working, proud and likable person. Her teen-age daughter, Michelle, is a model of the American "work ethic," determined to get off welfare and support herself and her fatherless son, Bryant. Michael, one of Mary's two sons, is bright, physically attractive and seems to be headed for success as an engineering student at Temple University.

Even that usual villain -- the "system" -- behaves generously. In addition to a welfare check and food stamps to supplement Mary's earnings, the government provides free medical care for the family. For Mary's retarded son, Earl, it provides a monthly disability payment, specialized programs and free day care. The government also helps Mary finance the mortgage payments on her home and finds a job for Michelle. As for Michael, he has been given special pre-college training, a college scholarship, a summer job and a series of vacation trips that few American families could afford, all paid for by a philanthropic private corporation. The family has a total cash income of about $13,000 a year and a package of free services worth several thousand dollars more.

Yet everything goes wrong. When Michelle takes a job, the family's welfare check and the various services that go with it are terminated. Although the family's income is now higher, Mary's income is lower since Michelle does not share her earnings with her mother. The burden of caring for both Earl and Bryant falls on Mary. Mary falls further behind in her mortgage payments and the bank begins foreclosure. Michael quits his summer job in a huff and hangs around the house in sullen silence. Michelle is temporarily laid off from her job. Finally, in desperation, Mary quits her 11-year job at a community service center, opting instead for the lower income but greater security of a welfare-check.

A case for welfare reform? Well, maybe. More than 10 years of welfare reform attempts have taught most of us that no miracles are to be expected. The ideal welfare system -- that model of seamless perfection with all the inequities and perverse incentives smoothed away -- can't be constructed, even on paper. The conflicting interests are too great and the needs too diverse.

But there are some things that can and should be done. No welfare system should be administered so poorly that it can't respond to the changing needs of its clients. People should not hesitate to take a job for fear they won't be able to get back on welfare quickly if their fortunes change. Nor is there any excuse for tying eligibility for other important services, such as medical care, to the receipt of a welfare check rather than to need, so that a person can be made worse off in real terms by working than by staying on welfare. Rules like this crept into the system both for administrative convenience and because they were assumed to be money savers. Allowing low-income families not on welfare to receive medical and other needed assistance will cost more at first. But the expense is well worth it not only because it encourages self-sufficiency but because it makes the system fairer.

There are other problems, however, in the Manley family that seem less amenable to government solution. For one, there is the "welfare ethic," which, Mary complains, leads her children and their friends to blame their problems on the "system," to squander what they are given and to regard as either irrelevant or threatening the notion that they are responsible in some measure for their own lives and their family's common well-being.

In large measure, these problems may be beyond the reach of the welfare system, "reformed" or not. But to the extent that these attitudes of dependency are fostered by that system, a reorientation in the direction of fostering self-sufficiency and self-respect seems in order. This means, first, shifting the emphasis from guaranteeing goods and income to providing opportunities for self-advancement through work and training. Second, it means operating all our various welfare, job and education programs in such a way as to develop a sense of personal responsibility by setting reasonable standards and enforcing them, requiring an honest and timely reporting of changes in family circumstances, expecting a day's work for a day's pay and an honest effort to learn in return for free education and training.

The youth training and education bill that remains before Congress takes some important steps in this direction. These include linking education and training with youth work programs and setting and enforcing clear standards for discipline and achievement for youth program participants. And Congress and the administration went a long way last year in developing and building a consensus behind a reasonably priced set of incremental welfare reforms for both cash and job assistance that addressed others of these problems. Whoever is in charge after the elections should build on these efforts to enact, at long last, something that can be counted as real welfare reform.