In proposing that federal welfare programs (and many other services) be turned back to the states, President Reagan is boldly challenging the entire direction and thrust of US government during the past half century. Prior to the 1930s welfare programs were either undertaken by private charity or administered at the state or local level. The Great Depression provided the rationale for centralizing such programs in Washington. Economic hardship, so the argument went, was a national problem.
Controversial New Deal measures such as the Public Works Administration (PWA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA) are long gone. But their philosophical successors, such as the food stamp program and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), grew out of the turbulent 1960s. Mr. Reagan now says that the federal role for these programs should be ended.
Such a transfer would have not only financial but political and social implications. Financially, the states would seem to be the winners. Medicaid costs (which would be assumed by the federal government) are expected to jump sharply in the decade ahead, as the population becomes proportionately older. At the same time, given the expected dropoff in the ''baby boom'' later in the 1980 s, it is possible that many unemployment rolls will shrink as people hitherto locked into public assistance, such as minorities, are scooped up in the work force. That could mean less funding will be needed for both food stamps and family assistance, both of which would be assumed by the states.
But ''cost'' must always be measured in more than dollar terms. Currently, some 11 million Americans receive assistance under AFDC programs. Some 21 to 22 million persons -- roughly one out of every 10 Americans -- receive food stamps.
Both programs have come under criticism from many quarters. The question is, would state legislatures be willing to continue support for such welfare programs past 1991, when the federal trust fund program proposed by Mr. Reagan is finally terminated? Would persons in low-benefit states merely do what the poor did back in the 1940s and 1950s -- move to high-benefit jurisdictions? That is one of the reasons often cited to explain New York City's financial woes -- the influx of thousands of welfare seekers. Could that happen to, say, Los Angeles in the 1990s? And is it correct to say that most state or local governments would handle welfare more efficiently than Uncle Sam? One can think of any number of states saddled with bureaucracies far worse than that of the federal government.
Eligibility standards for current welfare programs should be tightened. But the underlying rationale for a primary federal role still seems to be valid: that welfare is a national problem and that there can be economies from centralization of operations and uniform standards.
Lawmakers, and the American public, should consider such a sweeping transfer of responsibility to aid those genuinely in need of assistance only with the utmost deliberation.