The skinny, 9-year-old boy dug in the pocket of his cut-off jeans and carefully handed over three pennies he had found on the floor of his sister's room.

Standing in front of a white counter displaying two signs, "Drinks 2 cents," "Sandwiches 3 cents," he was given a cheese sandwich by a kitchen worker. He bit in immediately, before joining eight other children eating at the nearby pint-sized tables and chairs.

This is a downtown Washington soup kitchen born of 1982's hard times, a soup kitchen for children only.

"When the children started showing up at the traditional soup kitchens, I knew I had to do something," explained Veronica Maz, who founded "Martha's Table" six months ago for hungry children under 12. Now, between 25 and 40 children eat daily at the storefront kitchen at 14th and W Streets.

Martha's Table reflects just one part of the price children are paying for the turmoil caused by the economy, government budget cuts and worsening unemployment.

In a way, social workers and other experts say, childhood itself is changing, cut short by the need for teens to go to work or diminished by the inability to enjoy things like new clothes and school outings.

These experts also see a disturbing rise in child abuse and child fatalities, locally and nationally, a well-documented trend that they attribute to the tough times. They also point out that more children are living in poverty and more are seeing their families disintegrate under the pressure of too little money and too much responsibility.

Local social workers, citing the figures as a grim testament to the strains of an uncertain economy, report that in Maryland there have been 22 deaths from suspected child abuse so far this year, already a 100 percent increase over the 11 child abuse deaths in 1981. "You have people living at the margin of life and they're having far more exposure to the children," said Pat Waters, program specialist for the state's Protective Services for Children. "They just go over the edge."

In Virginia, 38 fatalities involving suspected child abuse were recorded in the year ending June 1981, a sizable increase over the 22 deaths that occurred a year earlier. Although the deaths for this year have not been compiled, the number of abuse reports again is increasing, officials report.

In the District of Columbia, Child Protection Services has recorded nearly a 7 percent increase in child abuse, with 2,668 reports received in the year ending in July.

"In the area of sexual abuse, we do feel there's a connection with the economy," said Joyce Thomas, director of the Child Protection Center at Children's Hospital. "Day care is not as available and children are not receiving good supervision."

Statistics on child abuse are not yet available nationally, although many states with high unemployment are reporting record increases. At the American Humane Association, a private group in Denver that compiles these figures for the federal government, analyst Marilyn Wiles Kettenmann said, "It appears the numbers are going up. It's our conjecture it's the inability of states to provide services."

That inability to provide services under increasing demand can be seen in Prince George's County's foster care program, for example. In past years, 15 or fewer children commonly required foster care each month. That figure has jumped to 25 per month in 1982.

That increase is complicated by another problem of bad economic times, a decline in foster homes. In one instance, this shortage is causing the county to return four children to their father this weekend, four months before social workers thought him ready to accept the responsibility, said Carol Siemens, supervisor of county foster care. "We're keeping our fingers crossed."

The federal budget cuts for legal aid also are delaying adoptions for some 1,500 foster children in Baltimore because there are fewer legal aid lawyers to handle the cases, according to a report by the Maryland Citizen Foster Care Review Board.

Older youths are falling back on accessible opportunities for work and shelter, multiplying the number of people seeking jobs in the military and Jobs Corps.

Like the rush to military jobs, one of the most public signs of the tough times has been the local unemployment statistics. Less visible has been the host of family disruptions and adjustments spawned by joblessness.

The layoff of 3,800 Bethlehem Steel workers at Sparrows Point, for example, has caused a spate of marital separations, said Peter Wray, a committeeman with Steelworkers Local 2610. Some spouses and children of laid-off steelworkers have found minimum-wage jobs, but family routines have been jumbled and unwelcome economies have become a way of life. "We haven't even touched the surface of how the layoffs are dealing with the families," Wray said.

Chris Brouse, the wife of one laid-off Baltimore steelworker, spent time last week putting in false hems in her 7-year-old daughter's school clothes. The Brouses, like many other Maryland steelworking families, are struggling to meet the mortgage payments. When school begins in two weeks, their daughter won't be attending field trips or the once-a-month movies. "I'm kind of heartbroken, but we're on a strict budget," Chris Brouse said. "I tell her, 'Poor little pauper.' She understands, but she doesn't understand."

Across the street, Lolita Lutz, 16, will not be joining her classmates at Catholic High for her senior year. Along with two of her friends, whose fathers also are laid off, she is leaving. "We don't have enough money to finish the year," she said of the $700 tuition. "I expected to graduate with my friends. Now I'll miss the senior prom and all that."

She will attend public night school instead and use her babysitting money to attend cosmetology school during the day. "I really think it's a lot harder to support yourself. It's rough. When you're there school , you were protected, you knew everybody. After you're out of there, it's like no one cares."

Several parochial schools in the Washington area are receiving a record number of requests for transfers to public schools. "It hurts to see them leave because of finances," said Joanne Blaney, principal of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in the District, where 10 of its 300 students transferred out this summer because their parents could not afford the tuition.

"Our transfers are up and enrollment is down and I'm sure it's the economy," said Sister Catherine McConnel of Holy Name School in Washington. Twenty-eight students, most of them children of laid-off government workers, have transferred out this summer, said McConnel. "It's a very difficult adjustment for a student, just to make new friends."

For many children, the carefree days of youth have been replaced with constant worries about money and their future.

Jeffrey Ponder, 15, of Washington, is working as a neighborhood surveyor this summer and aspires to be a computer analyst, but worries about the thousands of dollars needed for college tuition: "We're young now, but we've got to realize what's going on. You've got to be smarter and work harder." His mother was relieved he found work this summer, he said, because it means he can be responsible for buying his own school clothes.

For Shelly Jones, 11, of Alexandria, her mother's constant money worries since the family's food stamp allotment was cut last spring mean that she feels guilty about the $400 loan her mother, Arnette, 27, arranged to buy her new leg braces. "I get very nervous about them breaking or something," said Shelly, paralyzed since birth. "I take them off very carefully and put them on the wall by the window."

Schools are beginning to deal with the problems that joblessness brings to children. In Montgomery County, a book about an unemployed father, "Ramona and Her Father," written by children's author Beverly Cleary, has hit such a responsive chord that the book has been approved as a textbook.

Some families are ripping up their roots and taking to the road to find work. When they run out of money, children are being given to foster care or social agencies. "The kids are from Michigan, Florida, Arkansas and they just get buffeted about from agency to agency," said Jimmie Baranowski, director of a Galveston, Tex., youth shelter that is part of the National Network of Runaway and Youth Services.

Mirroring national statistics that show a growing number of youths are working, Baranowski said, many teen-agers at the shelter are the family's only breadwinners. "This is not the land of milk and honey. We have children who get a job waiting tables who have to turn the check over to their parents."

In Washington, the president of Popeye's Fried Chicken seven fast-food restaurants, Morgan Walker, noted, "We now have some teen-agers who are the sole support of the family."

Government budget cuts also are beginning to affect family structure. One of the earliest documented examples occurred in Iowa, where the state legislature canceled a special welfare program for unemployed parents one year ago. Among the 4,170 families affected, more than 1,000 parents have separated, according to State Department of Social Services figures. "No one can tell yet what the federal cutbacks in food stamps and welfare will mean as far as breakup of families," said Paul Smith, a researcher at the Children's Defense Fund. "We're months away from collecting that data."

But what is known, via U.S. Census figures, is that more children fall under the federal definition of poverty. In 1981, the government found 19.5 percent of all children under 18 were living in poverty, compared to 18 percent in 1980 and 16 percent in 1979. And officials agree that the situation is worse this year, with 3 million children under 18 living in homes where the father is unemployed, an increase of 362,000 over 1981.

"The cutback in food stamps was the devastating blow for most welfare families," said Betty Jacobs, a supervisor of family counseling at D.C.'s Family and Child Services. "An increasing number of women are coming here not knowing what to do with their kids; they can't make ends meet. There's an increase in physical illness, an increase in separations, a lack of taking care of children."

The increase in economic insecurity is causing psychological problems as well. "Children have spoken of the tensions at home because of the budget cuts," said Dr. Joseph Noshpitz, a psychiatrist at Children's Hospital in Washington. "There's not enough food in the house. They're having to forgo clothing for school.

"There's an observable impact of the meaning of money to people. Money is much more central now. It's a moving and distressing thing to see."

Children also are suffering from seemingly less important deprivations, such as an end to vacations or recreation, even a family's inability to afford a pet, Noshpitz said. And as the school year approaches, local educators say the trends of last spring -- such as fewer youths buying yearbooks or attending proms and more seeking reduced price lunches -- may grow.

Money has become a barrier for children to participate in groups such as the Girl Scouts, whose Washington Area Council spent $20,000 more this summer than last on needy girls. "It was the middle-class kids who couldn't go away to camp," said the Girl Scout Council's Jackie Brown, adding that 2,690 children were supported by the council this summer, in contrast to the 1,101 supported in 1981.

The new tensions that accompany the country's economic downturn will leave lasting impressions on youth, said psychiatrist Noshpitz. "This is by no means a minor part in the childrens' lives . . . . Some children will be deeply hurt by this economic period."