PRESIDENT REAGAN has long advocated requiring welfare recipients to "work off" their welfare grants in specially created jobs. Now the Maryland House of Delegates has voted to try a similar approach, and several other states are considering "workfare" programs. Can workfare be made to work?

The history of work relief projects isn't promising. The work projects tried in California while Ronald Reagan was governor were not successes by any standard of measurement. Several large counties refused to participate at all because of the added costs of supervising unwilling workers. Actual enrollments were low, and counties operating the program showed no welfare savings compared with similar counties. Experience in Massachusetts and Utah was similarly disappointing to those who had expected tough work requirements to drive large numbers of able-bodied loafers from the rolls. With the current high level of unemployment, results should be poorer still.

This dismal experience contrasts sharply with the considerable success that other job and training programs have had in helping welfare recipients become self-sufficient. There is no mystery about why these programs worked while workfare failed. Welfare recipients, like everyone else, want to work in jobs that offer them at least a chance at a better life. Job and training programs offered that chance. Workfare offers only the same miserable subsistence living, with the added burden of fewer hours for home and family responsibilities.

The Maryland legislators were not unaware of workfare's poor record, and the bill passed by the house tries to improve on the administration's model. Day care may be provided, and some recipients may be able to earn more than the minimum wage. Under the welfare changes voted by Congress last year, however, many recipients will be no better off working even in private sector jobs, so the necessary ingredient of work incentives will be lacking. Finding money in a tight state budget for supervisory costs and day care won't be easy, either.

One source for the needed money is the job training legislation that the administration sent to Congress this week. The proposed program is a poor shadow of the multi-billion-dollar CETA program that it replaces, but it has trained its scant resources on welfare recipients and low-skill, unemployed youth--two groups that frequently are one and the same.

The job legislation is likely to undergo considerable change in Congress--committees in both the Senate and House have their own versions waiting. State and local officials working with the congressional committees responsible for welfare and job legislation should be able to find a way to combine welfare and job training money to produce a program that is both valuable and efficient.