The portrait was not designed to warm the hearts of the American people: Ronald Prescott Reagan, 24, standing in line for unemployment benefits.

Young Reagan is not, after all, a typical laid-off automobile worker nor a card-carrying member of the truly needy. He is rather a dancer with the Joffrey Ballet on a regularly scheduled furlough.

His father, on the other hand, has long expressed his opinion that families should take care of their own, instead of leaping, or arabesquing if you will, right into the government's arms.

On one occasion, the elder Reagan said we should all look to the Mormons as our model. On another occasion, he said, "I made a point to count the pages of help-wanted ads in this time of great unemployment. There were 24 full pages of classified ads of employers looking for employees." It does not appear, however, that his son pounded the pavement in his ballet shoes before he headed for the unemployment lines.

But the point of all this isn't to snicker at family inconsistencies. As deputy press secretary Larry Speakes said, "The Reagans talked to Ron about being helpful and he expressed a desire to be independent and they respect that desire." He is not the first son of a famous father to try to make his own way in the world. The Reagans are no more in control of their son than the Windsors are of young Prince Andrew.

What is most notable about this modest family rebellion is the course that the younger Reagan has taken. He has refused help from his father and accepted it from the government.

The president sincerely extols the virtue of American families' taking care of their own nuclear and extended troubles. He also and equally sincerely believes in the virtues of individualism. But he often ignores the contradiction that runs through a great deal of our recent social history.

When you look through the figures carefully, the real "breakdown of the American family" has been a break for independence. The greatest statistical changes come as the old and the young choose to live on their own. And choose they do.

A running theme throughout the life of the elderly is that they "don't want to be a burden." A running theme throughout the life of the young is that they "want their own freedom." The more financially comfortable older people are, the more likely they are to maintain a separate household. The same is true with younger people.

But our kind of independence often depends on the existence of government programs. The younger Reagan is on his own this month with unemployment compensation (and a working wife). Millions of senior citizens are independent with the help of Social Security.

I don't mean to imply that Social Security and unemployment compensation are government handouts. We have done everything to differentiate these programs from welfare or charity. We pay in and we take out. We describe them as "entitlement programs," which is to say that we are "entitled" to them.

But if the government has replaced families in some times of need and trouble, it's partially because many families were unable to perform all these functions and partially because many of them prefer the impersonality of government assistance. In our concern about the government interference that comes with money, we often forget about the family interference that comes with money.

Whatever nostalgia we have about a mythical and real past in which people took care of their own in times of trouble, we have elaborate and expensive entitlement programs partially because millions of us would rather go to a bureaucracy than a brother-in-law.

The elderly would rather receive a check from the government than from the children. Reagan the Son finds it easier to take $125 a week from the government than from Reagan the Father.

For better and for worse, our independence often depends on the same government programs that the president has threatened. The president might think about that as he watches his son "making it on his own."