In seven communities around the country, able-bodied food stamp recipients now face a requirement to work off the value of the benefits they receive in public service jobs. Budget-cutters watching these "workfare" pilot projects see a welfare reform gold mine. Policymakers should go prospecting and stake a claim.

The work projects under the food stamp program have been operating for over a year. According to USDA figures, 88 percent of the food stamp recipients obligated to work dropped food stamps rather than take a public service job. Only 12 percent actually worked the few days a month needed to continue receiving food stamps.

San Diego was the largest project and accounted for about 50 percent of the cases. It included a beach area where many transients were apparently using food stamps to help finance extended vacations. They simply moved on when faced with a work requirement.

The proportion of food stamp dropouts would have been much smaller without the San Diego resort data. Yet overall, the work projects encouraged numerous people who are employable to leave food stamp rolls and find private-sector jobs.

Providing jobs instead of welfare promises to deliver taxpayer savings by reducing welfare rolls and outlays. And those who take public service jobs gain valuable work experience and a reinforcement of their incentive to get into the economic mainstream. Work can break the welfare syndrome and lead to a better life for those in need.

The new administration is looking to accomplish just that. President-elect Reagan pioneered in welfare work programs as governor of California. His program helped move employable people into regular jobs.

Even liberals are seeing advantages to work instead of welfare as the best way to help the poor. Columnist William Raspberry wrote last June, "We are starting to think less about how best to take care of people, and more about ways to move them toward self-sufficiency."

For a decade, the United States has struggled with the fact that our current welfare system discourages able-bodied recipients from working. When a welfare recipient earns income, the government lowers his or her welfare payments accordingly. Working brings only a very small net increase in total income.

The major welfare reform proposals of the past decade sought to counter this. But those reforms would have resulted in enormous increases, died in Congress. We need a work incentive without a corresponding increase in welfare and its costs.

Work projects are the answer. They encourage the able-bodied on welfare to get regular jobs in the private sector, since they must otherwise work in public service jobs. In San Diego, one food stamp recipient had been a movie theater manager but had not been able to find another job after being laid off. She did so well in the work project that she landed a regular part-time job with the country.

Finding jobs for welfare recipients involves some added administrative costs. But they are worth it -- and extra costs should likely be more than paid by savings as increased welfare dropouts reduce welfare costs, on the one hand, and by the value of the public service performed by participants, on the other.

There is also a social value. Welfare recipients learn useful skills and actively contribute to society while associating with others instead of stagnating at home. And most important, through work programs, welfare families -- adults and impressionable children alike -- can learn that a full-time, regular job means progress. Unfortunately, that is not the case under our present welfare system.