What if out-of-wedlock births were rare?

What if nearly every child lived in a two-parent family?

What if everyone on welfare eagerly sought a job?

That is the vision of America projected by President Reagan in his Feb. 4 State of the Union address. He ordered a major study on federal welfare and family policies, to be completed by Dec. 1, under the direction of Attorney General Edwin Meese III, chairman of the president's Domestic Policy Council.

Why did the president order the study? What are its assumptions? What will it come up with?

The immediate stimulus was the tremendous public interest in the "welfare culture" spurred by newspaper stories about the inner city -- including a Washington Post series by Leon Dash -- on the occasion of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Jan. 20, and by a Bill Moyers documentary aired by CBS News. The public was shown a social "underclass" alien to most Americans -- poor, alienated, bearing children out of wedlock, living on welfare.

But in the background was Reagan's long-held conviction that welfare needs change. As California governor, he won major revisions. As president, he got Congress to cut eligibility and let the states make people work off benefits at community jobs ("workfare"). He has long made political capital out of anecdotes about high-living "welfare queens."

Statistics on family life strongly back the idea it is time for action. In 1960, 7.4 percent of families with children under 18 were headed by women without a husband present; now the figure is 19 percent overall and 49 percent for blacks.

On average, 10.8 million people monthly depend on the federal-state welfare program of Aid to Families with Dependent Children. In fiscal 1984, the Congressional Research Service reports, programs based on need (including training and education) cost the federal, state and local governments $134 billion.

Reagan has argued that a system costing so much but leaving 33.7 million people poor is seriously out of kilter. A senior administration official said studies show that "if we gave everybody in the United States who was below the poverty line enough cash to bring them up over the poverty line $10,600 for a family of four , it would take only $60 billion."

More important, perhaps, is the president's belief that government welfare policies undermine the work ethic, foster out-of-wedlock births and perpetuate welfare dependency. "Instead of helping the poor, government policies ruptured the bonds holding poor families together," said Reagan in a Feb. 15 radio address.

The study now under way has three parts. Undersecretary of Education Gary Bauer, considered a strong conservative and profamily advocate, heads a task force on the overall problems of the family. Charles Hobbs of the White House Office of Policy Development, formerly associated with the conservative Heritage Foundation, heads a task force on welfare programs. And Assistant Attorney General Charles Cooper heads one on the impact of any proposed program changes on federal-state relations. Each group includes representatives of several departments.

In an interview, Bauer said he will seek ideas not just from the federal agencies but from community groups. While problems cannot all be blamed on government policies, he said, his job is to identify "perverse incentives" in public laws and programs that may be hurting the family, as well as to identify areas in which a lack of government action is having a harmful effect on the family.

He cited, for example, the government's failure to ensure that tax provisions benefiting most poor families keep up with inflation, and the question of whether the high inflation of the 1970s forced mothers out of the home and into the workforce. "I certainly have no opposition to women working -- my wife works -- but we're talking about women who really don't want to work but were forced into it."

Bauer's study will also "look at problems with day care, preschool programs, school organization, drug abuse, pornography." In some areas, his group may not propose program changes but will instead use the report as a bully pulpit "to assert values about the family."

Cooper's panel -- actually an ongoing study of federal-state relations in general -- has a narrow role in the current family and welfare study. It will assess "the impact of any welfare and other changes on the federal structure. How would it affect state and local governments?"

But it is Hobbs' study -- of particular welfare programs and whether they should be substantially changed -- that has occasioned the most debate. Hobbs declined to discuss what solutions he might have in mind, but some officials were willing to discuss welfare problems with the understanding that they not be quoted directly.

One administration official said, "It costs too much by providing benefits to people who are not poor and at the same time, it doesn't adequately provide for needy people who are poor." Stuart M. Butler and S. Anna Kondratas of the Heritage Foundation calculated that 14 million poor people don't get means-tested public assistance (the Census Bureau estimates 10 million), while 21 million nonpoor do.

Officials said there are huge disparities among the benefits received by different people; by combining a variety of benefits, they said, some can "pyramid" their benefits to 180 percent of the poverty line.

One official argued that the current system discourages work, saying, "When you look at basic benefits -- AFDC, plus food stamps and Medicaid and a few others -- in many states, you find that they are not much lower than the income after taxes and child-support costs of a person who is working and is making a low-to-middling wage." A welfare mother who ventures to work, he said, sometimes loses as much in benefit reductions as she earns. "If you get X take-home income from work, and you can get the same out of welfare without work, why work?"

The officials see welfare as a disincentive to two-parent families, in part because half the states don't pay benefits when an able-bodied father is present. They say some commentators think that welfare provides a safety net that unmarried girls know is there if they should get pregnant -- or that might even encourage them to get pregnant.

Administration officials think that there will be plenty of jobs 10 to 15 years down the road, as the "baby bust" thins the workforce, for people who would otherwise go on welfare, if only the welfare programs were restructured to emphasize "job-keeping" as well as "job-doing skills."

All these arguments seem plausible. But many welfare experts and Democratic officials disagree and fear that Reagan's study is a "cover" to dress up demands for cuts in welfare.

Such critics dispute White House claims that welfare in most states approaches what a representative low-income worker earns. They view the "welfare culture" as the result rather than the cause of family breakup and unemployment, and point instead to a scarcity of jobs for youth, the rapid migration of blacks out of southern agriculture, lack of training and broad shifts in public values and sexual mores.

Some Reagan critics fear that the study will recommend such "restructurings" as shrinking eligiblity; cutting federal welfare reimbursements to the states; imposing a universal workfare requirement; capping benefits at the poverty line; combining all benefits (cash, food, medical care, other services) into a single, very low benefit; counting medical treatment as cash income and reducing cash benefits correspondingly; and shifting some welfare programs totally to the states, perhaps accompanied by "block grants" at sharply reduced federal outlay levels.

Rep. Harold E. Ford (D-Tenn.), chairman of the House Ways and Means welfare subcommittee, said in an interview, "Not only am I suspicious of it, but I'm concerned whether Ed Meese is going to take any time to conduct any in-depth study." He said that while "our president talked profamily," administration actions were antifamily; for example, its opposition to a proposal to provide AFDC benefits to families with unemployed fathers at home.

Nancy Amidei, former deputy assistant secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services for welfare legislation, said, "It's clear they want to save $60 billion by using an underfunded block grant, turning it over to the states and forgetting about the people involved."

But administration officials deny that they have decided what to recommend. "I do not see this report as some veiled way to get budget cuts," Bauer said. Another official denied a report in The New York Times that implied the administration was on the point of deciding to cut off benefits for anyone over the poverty line. He said of the welfare study, "We are -- unequivocally -- not starting with the idea of cutting programs or cutting off benefits at the poverty level." Based on the way the president's has framed the issue in White House discussions, he said, "We're approaching this thing from the budget-neutral standpoint."