Merry Christmas . . . the check is in the mail.

The District Summer Jobs for Youth program ended officially in the first week of September. But yesterday, in the next-to-last week of December, the city's Department of Employment Services, which runs -- in a manner of speaking -- the sumer jobs program, was still trying to get out paychecks for that program. According to DES officials, several hundred (they don't know exactly how many) young people still are owed money by the jobs program. Three hundred of the young people's complaints about non-payment have been researched in the last few days in an attempt to get them their money in time for Christmas. But checks for only half of those 300 youngsters were ever located and certified as being owed to the youngsters as of yesterday morning.

That teen-agers who worked a summer job are still not paid, four months after the last worker said goodbye, is the latest evidence of how badly managed the jobs program has been for the last two years. In past summers, the jobs program has been a mess. Some work sites have had too many youngsters assigned to work, so that young people are left to sit around or play ball until quitting time; hardly a good first lesson for people who are learning what it is like to work a job. At other job sites, too few young people have been assigned, leaving employers begging for other workers. There have even been job sites where employers have asked for young people and none have been assigned.

Those problems befall young people who are lucky enough to actually get registered and assigned to a job in the summer program. Last year, parents of low-income youngsters had to accompany their children -- taking time off from low-paying jobs -- to job centers so their children could register for work. In many cases where children could not convince parents to go with them to the job sites, the youngsters never got registered. For some other youngsters, the job assignment never came in the mail, although they had registered and been promised a job.

Yet the worst of the job program's headaches was its inability to pay the young people -- right up to this Christmas Day. Now is the time to end this madness. Let's call it a Christmas present to the children of the city. The first step necessary will be for the Department of Employment Services to get a payroll system in place now -- immediately -- and test it to see if it works.The second step is to line up employers for next summer's jobs and register all the young people for those jobs in the next two months. In March and April, the empoyers and the young people can be matched by interests, needs and neighborhoods. In May, any mistakes or problems can be corrected so the program can get off to a fast start in June. It would be a shame for the city government to have to play Scrooge again next year to children from poor families.