They met here at a hotel not far from the airport. They had the usual seminars and workshops, and manufacturers came to display their products. They had a gala and gave away door prizes and then they all went home. I am talking about regional workers in Head Start, the Great Society program, 20 years old and a roaring success. Shhh, it's a secret.

You did not know that Head Start was thriving? Well, neither did I. You did not know that here was one brainchild of 1960s liberalism that had not been pronounced a well-intentioned but nevertheless dismal failure and then starved by the Reagan administration? Don't blame yourself. When it comes to Head Start, its success, even its very existence, is something of a secret. Who knows, if more people knew about it, they might start getting ideas.

At the moment, though, there is little fear of that. The prevailing wisdom is that there is almost nothing the big bad federal government can do but gum up the works. It and its money only make poor people poorer, more dependent. You would think that the culprit is not a whole range of problems, but only the stupid ol' government. Without it, the ghetto would look like Scarsdale.

But Head Start proclaims otherwise -- not that anyone much pays attention. Its little secret remains largely ignored as the nation coasts blithely into a social and economic crisis that everyone can see coming but few, least of all the administration, is doing anything to avoid. In report after report, both congress and private agencies proclaim the worsening plight of the black child if only because so many of them (4.3 million) live in poverty.

Their statistical profile is shocking. The Children's Defense Fund says that a black child is twice as likely as a white one to die in the first year of life, three times as likely to be poor, four times as likely not to live with either parent, five times as likely to be on welfare. Congressional reports paint much the same picture.

The sum of all these numbers is, of course, social chaos -- that and just plain personal misery. You can ignore the misery if you want, but not the social chaos. It's dangerous and expensive -- as dangerous and expensive as crime, welfare, unemployment, alcoholism, drug addiction and the fire that is surely coming next time. And yet, at the level that really matters, social services are or have been reduced -- cut back in the name of either economics or ideology. The Head Start people at this conference, although relieved their own programs are safe, say that all the other social service programs they rely on -- health, nutrition -- have either been reduced or priced so high they're out of reach.

Since the Kennedy and Johnson administrations declared war on poverty, the enemy has humbled us. If the war has taught us one thing for sure, it is how little we actually know about poverty. Nevertheless, in 20 years such programs as Head Start, directed precisely at the children who are the statistics in all those reports, have proven their worth.

By getting to the kids at an early age, the programs have produced adults who, compared to their peers, have lower rates of teen-age pregnancy, crime and welfare dependency and higher rates of employment. And yet Head Start has the funds to serve only maybe a third of the children it could.

Recently, the Reagan administration has struck a more activist pose. It finally took substantive action regarding South African sanctions. Similarly, after waiting for the ghost of Adam Smith to rectify the trade imbalance, it moved to bring down the value of the dollar. If it could intervene in these matters, why could it not also intervene in the lives of the poor? There were several hundred people meeting here who know just how it could be done. They would be glad to share their secret.