Somebody figured out a few years back that if you graduate from high school, get a job, get married and stay married, it's almost impossible to be poor in America.

Sure enough, the Census Bureau's poverty rate for married-couple families is about 5 percent; it's 6 percent for married, working blacks with high-school diplomas. By contrast, the poverty rate for blacks as a group is 30 percent; it's 32 percent for all female-headed families.Given the social ills associated with poverty, like crime and poor health, it seems obvious that public policy should encourage people to finish high school, work and - get married.

Get married? You can almost hear the consternation in some quarters: Since when is it government's business to intrude into matters of personal choice by favoring any one lifestyle over others?

Fortunately, that is not all one hears these days. Listen to the sensible words of two increasingly influential Democrats, policy analysts Elaine Kamarck and William Galston, in their study for the centrist Progressive Policy Institute, "Putting Children First":

"Public programs cannot substitute for healthy families and should not try . . . . Given all the money in the world, government programs will not be able to instill self-esteem, good study habits, advanced language skills or sound moral values in children as effectively as can strong families."

Kamarck and Galston argue that because stable, two-parent families are best at raising children, public policy should encourage the formation and survival of such families. A number of governors are thinking along the same lines.

Gov. Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin, for example, proposes giving teenage welfare mothers an extra $80 a month if they get married and depriving those who stay single of the usual increased benefits for a second baby.

Thompson's pilot program must win approval from a Democratic legislature and from Washington: Under federal welfare law, favoring two-parent families requires a special dispensation.

We hope Thompson's experiment goes forward. More important, we hope the principle comes to shape policy across the land: Government must do what little it can, in the face of powerful contrary cultural currents, to shore up the two-parent family.