PRESIDENT REAGAN proposed in 1981 that welfare mothers whose children had reached school age be required to work for their benefits. An uneasy Congress deflected the issue to the states, allowing them to set up work programs if they chose. Many now have, though not all require recipients to work; some merely require or help them to look for jobs. The state programs constitute almost a work-and-welfare laboratory, and the well-regarded Manpower Demonstration Research Corp. has carefully studied 11 of them. The results now appearing suggest that work requirements may be neither as punitive nor as effective as past debate on the subject has made them out to be. The reports could help defuse this issue.

They begin by reminding that most people don't stay on welfare long in any case; just over half of all recipients move off the rolls within two years. This moving target makes it hard to measure the effect of a work requirement. It can lead to overblown claims that a program has lifted some huge percentage of people out of dependency when most would have moved off anyway.

MDRC corrected for this, and in three studies completed so far found that:

1.The various state programs did make a modest difference. Employment rates -- the percentages of recipients who found at least some work during the periods studied -- were a few points higher for those in the programs than out, and in two states welfare costs declined. In two states also, average net income was higher inside the programs than out; recipients gained more in pay than they lost in benefits.

2.The programs made the most difference among women otherwise likely to be on welfare the longest -- those, for example, who came to welfare never having held a job.

3.The jobs were not great, but most were not makework, either, and most recipients thought the programs were fair.

4.These programs are fragile, and the more pressure put on them to move people off the rolls, the less good they may do. The tendency will be to make the statistics look good by concentrating on the most employable recipients who would probably move off welfare on their own, instead of those both harder and more important to help. And for various reasons, including cost, it is not clear the modestly good results in these relatively small programs could be sustained on a larger scale -- statewide, for example.

Yet the administration applies exactly this kind of pressure. The president in his budget has proposed requiring the states to place three-fourths of employable welfare applicants and recipients in "some form of work-related activity" within three years. At the same time, he would require the states to pay a greater share of the cost of these programs. The administation, which also has begun a year- long study of federal welfare programs, is seeking more for less. It doesn't work.