MUCH ATTENTION has been paid to a recent Justice Department study that is said to demonstrate that giving teen-agers jobs tends to lead them toward a life of crime. Before you spend any more time wondering why that should be, let us assure you that the study in question doesn't show that at all.

What the study did show was that among a group of teen-agers in Racine, Wis. -- 80 percent of whom held jobs, typically both during and after the school year -- those who worked had, on average, slightly higher rates of police contact than those who didn't. Those who worked full-time before the age of 18 had significantly higher numbers of brushes with the law, and these also tended to be more serious in nature.

Does this prove that working causes crime? Of course not. A more plausible explanation -- not yet investigated by the study's researchers -- might be that the relatively few youth who didn't work tended to come from higher-income families. As many other studies have shown, higher income is associated with lower rates of delinquency particularly of the more serious type.

As for the full-time workers under age 18, they were all school drop-outs. It is hardly news that kids who drop out of school tend to get in trouble with the law. What would be more interesting to know is whether those who dropped out of school and didn't find work got in more or less trouble than those (with comparable family incomes) who did work.

A similar confusion of association with causality may be at work with respect to the study's finding that among youths who had any contact with police (which was almost all of them), those who were actually punished were more likely to get in future trouble than those who weren't. Does this imply that the juvenile justice system, far from correcting delinquency, tends to promote it? Another explanation might be that in meting out punishments, the police and the courts do a pretty good job in singling out youthful offenders who are likely to be real troublemakers in the future, and that it is this propensity on the part of the youths -- rather than the fact of punishment -- that is associated with subsequent offenses. The study simply doesn't tell you enough to draw a conclusion.

As James C. Howell of the Justice Department points out in a letter today, many factors contribute to why some kids go wrong and others don't. Even when you've accounted for all those factors, there's still a large element of the unknown. But there is no evidence in the Racine study that helping youths develop skills and attitudes needed to hold a decent job steers them toward a life of crime. And there is much evidence from other studies that the proper kind of school and work mix can do a lot to set young people on the right track.