HOW CAN WE end the cycle of poverty that keeps millions of Americans in dependency and despair? One answer, being tried on a modest scale by the Girl Scouts of America, is to show young women in the nation's ghettos that there are other possibilities for them than a life on the streets or on welfare.

As a recent article in The Wall Street Journal described it, the Girl Scouts have in a particular sense grown up. Scouts still sell cookies, camp out and stay prepared. But the message that leaders carry to their predominantly middle-class clientele is that little girls have more to prepare for in life than housework and child-bearing. They have also been reaching out to girls in poverty-stricken neighborhoods around the country, offering them a chance to develop the self-respect, discipline and skills needed to make their way in the world.

Efforts like this reach to the very heart of the "welfare problem." Most families on welfare have no father in the home, and an increasing number of poor children are born outside of marriage. Many of the mothers of these children are still children themselves. One school of thought holds that welfare itself has promoted this situation by making unwed motherhood profitable. But welfare benefits are so low, relative to American standards of decent living, that it's hard to imagine anyone's deliberately choosing a life on welfare-if she sees an alternative.

That is why activities like those of the Girl Scouts are so impoertant. They dont create jobs of provide income , but they do provide at least a starting point for young peole who are growing up in a world of neglect, despair, crime and dependency. To break out of the cycle of poverty, you have to start somewhere. One food way to start is by teaching young people self reliance and responsibility and offering them a sense of possibility.