MOST PEOPLE have, at best, mixed feelings about the welfare population. Helping little children is a clear if sad necessity, but there is substantial suspicion that many of their parents -- including the mothers who are usually the only parent still around -- really could support them if only they had a little "initiative." Whatever the merits of this view, there can be little quarrel with the idea that when welfare parents do show some get-up-and-go, they should be given a helping hand.

Whether by intention or inadvertence, the cummulative effect of many of the administration's proposed budget cuts will be just the opposite. A recent study by the University of Chicago's Center for the Study of Welfare Policy makes this plain. Sharp cutbacks in welfare supplements and other kinds of help will render working welfare families little better off than they should be if the parent stayed at home. In some cases, they will be no better off or, because of work expenses, worse off.

Many welfare families will be affected by these changes. Information taken from welfare case records shows that fewer than 20 percent of welfare parents work. But these records, because they are not updated very often, show the status of many families only at the time they first apply for welfare -- usually a low point. Census surveys, on the other hand, provide a different picture. During a typical month, almost 30 percent of heads of welfare families work. Another 16 percent are actively looking for work. Over the course of a year, almost half of all AFDC family heads -- most of them women -- work. Other family members also work so that about two-thirds of AFDC families have some yearly earnings.

All this work effort may not square with the familiar stereotype of the welfare population as a group made up exclusively of willing idlers. But it isn't readdy surprising when you remember that, in many states, welfare benefits are so low -- $140 a month for a family of four in Texas, for example, and $148 a month in Tennessee -- that not working would mean a life of stark necessity. Current law, moreover, provides at least modest financial incentives for work. For example, the University of Chicago estimates that a California welfare mother with typical earings nets $188 more per moth than she would if she quit work. In Utah the gain is $116, in Louisiana it is $64. The administration's proposals would reduce these returns to something between zero and $15 a month.

In judging the likely effect of these sharp benefit reductions there is another important fact to consider. One powerful, though undesirable, incentive for work while on welfare is that, under the current system, a lot of earnings go unreported to welfare offices for many months so that benefits aren't reduced at all. One part of the administration's plan would, properly, tighten up on income-reporting requirements. This is a much-needed change, but it also means that the work disincentives built into the welfare system will become much more apparent to welfare recipients, as well as much sharper.

Cutting back on help to people who want to work -- whether or not they can finally manage to earn their way off welfare -- is poor policy. It makes some very poor people poorer; it discourages work on the part of the people who most need to be encouraged to work; and it flies in the face of the common-sense notion that people who try to help themselves should be better off than people who don't.