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AMERICA FACES NO PROBLEM more urgent than our skyrocketing illegitimacy rate.

Last year, 30 percent of all babies were born out of wedlock, and the rate is expected to rise.Illegitimacy almost always sentences children to a life struggling against overwhelming odds that they will be poor and poorly educated and, for girls, prone to repeating the cycle of unwed motherhood and dependence on welfare.

For teenage mothers, completing school and acquiring marketable skills become major struggles. Marriage becomes less likely.

Seventy-five percent of families headed by unmarried women live on $25,000 a year or less. The higher earners in that group are divorced. The income of most never-married mothers hovers between zero and the poverty line.

In a society where work and marriage are the I-beams of a middle-class life, nothing that encourages illegitimacy can be considered in the interest of women or children.

It is important to keep these facts in mind when the Senate resumes its work on welfare reform next month. For even though all sides in the debate cite them repeatedly, few proposals actually address them.

The length of benefits and the work requirements for them may have some marginal effect on the people now receiving welfare.

But considering the failure of every workfare program ever devised, tinkering is unlikely to help most of those who are in the system to transcend it.

The first goal should be to prevent girls who are not yet trapped from having babies. The way to begin is to cut off the most obvious distorting incentives - cash, housing and other subsidies - given to unwed teens for self-destructive decisions.

President Clinton recently asserted that there is a consensus not to do any such thing because it would punish innocent children.

How then would he change behavior? Like the feminist-welfare advocacy lobby, he would blame men.

And along with Sen. Bob Dole, he believes that intensified efforts to get "deadbeat dads" of illegitimate children to pay child support and become involved in their children's lives will solve the problem.

The idea of punishing men for seduction and desertion is of course attractive. Unfortunately, it won't work. The nation already spends nearly $2 billion a year on child support enforcement, with state bureaucracies employing 40,000 people to collect money from divorced and never-married fathers.

Census Bureau data show that nearly 80 percent of the divorced women entitled to child support receive payments, while only 12 percent of women on Aid to Families With Dependent Children receive even negligible sums from their children's fathers.

But increased enforcement won't significantly narrow the gap. A disproportionate number of unmarried fathers are unemployed, unemployable or too young to work.

Liberals were right when they argued that getting these men to pay was like squeezing blood from a stone.

Beyond that, it is bad policy for the state to enforce a contract that does not exist. We make divorced fathers support children they don't live with because marriage carries an obligation to offspring.

Casual sex and teenage romance carry no such obligation. When teenagers are impregnated by older men or under coercive circumstances, the policy answers, in effect, are rape and statutory rape charges.

Blurring the distinction between legitimacy and illegitimacy undermines marriage at the very moment it most needs to be strengthened.

Notice how successfully liberals have destroyed the moral and substantive differences between divorced or widowed mothers and never-married mothers - all of whom we now call "single mothers."

What teenage girls need most is a brutally realistic picture of what their lives will be like if they choose unwed motherhood. Society's unenforceable promise to make casual sexual partners behave like real fathers sends the wrong message.

After all, as middle-class women learned during the sexual revolution, a man who indicates that he is interested in sex but not commitment should always be taken at his word.

Even granting that the men involved are scum, the inescapable fact is that women bear children. Since women and girls have sexual autonomy, they can and should be held accountable for how they use it.

Before I am accused of blaming the victim, or wishing to deny women sexual freedom, recall that the women in question are not the classic victim caricature that the feminist-welfare lobby likes to cite. These are not wives bound by law or financial dependence to husbands. They are single women who control economic resources, in this case the AFDC check.

Contraception to prevent pregnancy is available - including Norplant, Depo-Provera and the pill. Abortion is an option.

Girls have the same educational opportunities and most of the economic opportunities boys have. This makes the choice of dependence less acceptable for poor women, just as it has for middle-class women.

The most useful thing we can do for girls on the verge of becoming welfare mothers is to make education, work and marriage preferable to subsisting on a welfare check.