Kenneth Dellinger, 23 years old and the father of two, has been looking for work for six months. He has been told "no" so many times that he has begun to believe he will never find a job.

Each day, it seems to him, it is the same. The mailbox contains more bills he can't pay. There is more fretting over his retarded son, already hospitalized twice this winter with pneumonia, because the heat must be kept down to save money. And then two weeks ago the county sheriff came by with a notice that he'd be evicted if he didn't pay $150 in back rent.

Slowly, Dellinger is being pushed to the point where he may soon stop looking for work altogether. The thought of it flushes his pale face and brings him close to tears: "It just can't go on," he says. "We just can't take much more of this."

There are tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of workers in America who have toppled over that edge and stopped looking for work. Dellinger says he knows many here in Winchester and Frederick County. They have given up because the recession seems not to be getting any better and because, like Dellinger, they feel the constant rejection of their job applications is a daily reaffirmation of their worthlessness.

Last month, unemployment in this county stood at 10.4 percent. Just last week the Abex Company, a manufacturer of brake linings and one of the major employers in Winchester, laid off 52 more workers. Already, Capitol Records, the O'Sullivan Corp., the General Electric light bulb plant, furniture manufacturer Henkel-Harris, VDO-Argo Instruments have had to lay off or furlough employes because of the deepening recession.

Even the Virginia Employment Commission, charged with finding jobs for the unemployed, has reduced its staff by more than half because of budget cuts. "It's hell," says Eugene Schultz, manager of the local VEC office. "We had one company that never had a layoff here in the 35-40 years they've operated. Now their management works 32 hours a week, and the plant is up two weeks and then down two weeks."

Thursday, Dellinger sat just outside Schultz's office with his 6-month-old daughter, Sarah, in his lap and waited for one of the state unemployment clerks to call him so they could talk once again about work.

Work. One day before his daughter was born, Dellinger was laid off from his job as a construction worker. That was in August. It was the fourth time in 1981 that he had been let go because his employers couldn't afford to keep all their help.

As it turned out, it was also the last time.

Dellinger had been worried and upset at the time. But he had always managed to come up with something before. Now, he soon discovered, things were different. When he walked into company offices, he found that he was competing with dozens of other unemployed men, if there were any jobs to be had at all.

And when he tried for part-time work, he found himself losing out to the wives of those unemployed men because employers were reluctant to hire a man they knew would leave the minute he found steady, full-time work. But the most depressing discovery of all was that he did not qualify for unemployment benefits because he had not earned enough money last year.

"I missed by $30," says Dellinger.

His 22-year-old wife, Tammy, took house cleaning jobs, but the heavy snows and the bald tires on their car immobilized her for three weeks. She was able to find a part-time waitress job--it pays about $25 a week--but it also disqualified the family from receiving some cash assistance from the government.

Now they are reduced to living on $580 a month, an amount that includes $264 in disability payments for their 3-year-old son, Richie, and $220 in food stamps. That must handle their monthly expenses of $130 for their mobile home, $50 to rent the space on which the home is parked, $70 in electricity, $100 for bottled gas to heat their home and cook with, plus food. Expenses that total $570.

There is $10 left over--for gasoline to get Tammy Dellinger to and from work and to fuel her husband's job search. Ten dollars--to pay off an old $1,000 loan and to handle any medical emergencies. Ten dollars--to spend on clothing and other necessities.

So far, they've survived because Dellinger's father, Kenneth Dellinger Sr., has not lost his job as a mechanic at Abex. He gives them what he can, runs errands for them, drives Tammy to work if necessary.

"I don't expect any of it back, so I haven't kept track," he says.

And they have survived because of support from fellow parishioners at the Seventh-day Adventist Church they attend. One loaned the couple money recently, and another gave Dellinger three suits that belonged to an elderly family member who had died. But the Dellingers now live without hope, which is a new emotion for them.

"I feel like we're going to lose everything," says Tammy. "Sometimes I think we'll even lose each other."