ONE VIEW of poverty holds that welfare programs, instead of combating poverty, generate and perpetuate it. Clearly, many people receiving welfare--the very old, the very young, the totally disabled--are inescapably dependent. But an argument can be made that there is a real "welfare cycle." Parents may pass on to their children the feelings of defeat and inadequacy that can come from many years on welfare. In the more generous states, families, especially those with many children, can amass benefits that exceed any likely earnings. With job opportunities for the unskilled scarce, a girl growing up in a welfare family might come to think that worse things could happen than becoming a welfare mother.

The Reagan administration subscribes at least in part to this view, and it offers two prescriptions. One is to cut welfare payments. The other is to step up harassment. Both of these avenues were pursued in last year's welfare cuts. The 1983 budget now in the making is reported to call for more of the same. Less aid will be given to families with handicapped or chronically sick children. Regular welfare benefits will be cut to offset special aid for emergencies or fuel bills. Families that try to stretch their budgets by moving in with relatives or friends will find their welfare checks still smaller. Harassment will be stepped up by requiring (not just permitting) states to run work-off-your-welfare programs for all adults, except the mothers of small children.

This is nickel-and-dime stuff in terms of the federal budget, although losses to some families could be substantial and state welfare costs may be increased. What is most objectionable, however, is that the welfare view the proposals embody is incomplete. Most welfare mothers don't have lots of children. Many of the children they do have are chronically sick or emotionally disturbed. Many live in states where welfare benefits are so pitifully low that the idea of chiseling down benefits to offset other forms of help is grotesque. It is also true that many welfare mothers not only want to work but do work whenever even the most miserable opportunity comes their way.

The complex reality of the welfare world has confounded conscientious policy makers--and some not so conscientious--for two decades. Finding what answers there may be requires recognizing the many facets of the welfare world and making modest investments in reducing their worst consequences. So far, the administration has done neither.