OVER THE PAST YEAR, the Reagan administration has pursued a clear and candid policy toward the poor. It believes that the conventional and traditional kinds of aid have made things worse, trapping people in poverty for generation after generation. There's something to that claim. The Reagan remedy is to tighten up sharply on welfare spending and trust to a strong economy to produce jobs that will help the poor more than any amount of direct financial aid.

Dire poverty in the United States has been much reduced over the last two decades, but billions in federal spending have still left about 30 million people officially classified as poor. Well over half the poor are very young, elderly or physically disabled. Even before the Reagan budget cuts, rising unemployment and inflation in 1980 had pushed over 3 million more people into poverty--the first big increase since the 1974-75 recession. High levels of unemployment not only add to present need but also translate into future poverty by breaking up families and disrupting normal work patterns. Breaking the cycle of inherited poverty will not be easy, and the current indicators are ominous. Minority youth joblessness and teen-age pregnancies are at record highs, and deteriorating inner-city schools continue to send large numbers of unprepared youths into a job market in which opportunities for the unskilled are shrinking rapidly.

In general, the Reagan administration has not cut the benefits, already inadequate, of the totally indigent and helpless. To achieve quick budget savings, it has instead gone after the benefits for the marginally poor--especially the working poor, those people whose jobs do not support their families. Past policy tried to create a ladder by which people could climb out of complete dependence by stages. Now some of the rungs are missing on that ladder. Some parents have abandoned their jobs because, under the new rules, they would otherwise have lost their families' eligibility for Medicaid. Many people who are dependent want job training. The long waiting lines that were a regular feature of the CETA training programs testified to that. CETA has now been severely diminished.

The poverty programs of the past were far from perfect, but they weren't all that expensive either. Programs specifically directed to the poor now account for less than 9 percent of the federal budget. These programs have already taken cuts of one- sixth to one-fourth--and that doesn't take inflation into account. These losses won't be made up elsewhere. Local governments and private charities are already strained to capacity.

While the budget has been cut at the great cost of the working poor in particular, the recent tax cut has greatly lightened the burden at the other end of the income scale. No one can yet tell precisely what the past year's extraordinary budget and tax legislation will do. But it is evident that, for the first time since World War II, there will be a profound shift in the distribution of income in this country--to the disadvantage of those who are already disadvantaged. The millions of new jobs that were supposed to replace welfare have not, of course, appeared. This great swing in public policy is not merely a matter of technical welfare economics. It is a change in the definition of public morality, and the concern that Americans are prepared to extend to each other. It is not a change for the better.