The LaCourses are the modern-day equivalent of the Joad family in John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath." They are contemporary, of course. Joan A. LaCourse is the head of her family, which is made up of herself and her 15-year-old son Donald Paul, while Steinbeck's family included parents, grandparents and children. The Joads were Oklahoma farmers driven from the land by poverty and drought. LaCourse is a skilled worker of Polish extraction driven from Massachusetts by economic desperation.

The Joads were lured by pamphlets promising employment in California. They made the long trek in a dilapidated car only to find a more oppressive economic system. The LaCourses, headed for the Sunbelt, didn't get any farther than metropolitan Washington, but they found an economic situation even worse for them than the one they left.

It is a story that this country has seen before in difficult times: Americans on the road. Families like the LaCourses are America's new poor, America's never-expected-to-be poor, people whom circumstances have forced into cars or trucks or out on foot with an extended thumb in the air. Too often, their dreams of economic betterment are swallowed up in the reality of hard times.

At 42, Joan says that until now she has always had a job even though in recent years things had grown more difficult. She obtained a license as a truck driver and, she says, proved herself by unloading a 45-foot trailer in 20 minutes, but could not find a steady driving job. She says she spent two years studying restaurant management, and when she applied for a job working in the kitchen of a small restaurant in Northampton, Mass., her boss told her she was overqualified, but she took the job anyway. She told him she'd aced restaurant management workshops, but found that restaurant owners paid more attention to younger college graduates.

Last year, Joan did fairly well. She made $168 a week and was able to buy a camper-trailer in which she and Donald lived. But this year she couldn't log as many hours because the restaurant business fell off. The $80 to $100 she made each week barely bought gas for the camper. When a friend noted that she was making $2 a week less than Massachusetts paid in unemployment benefits, she decided to try her luck elsewhere. She saved $300 and hit the road.

Joan and Donald arrived at the Pohick Bay Regional Park in Lorton, Va., on Sept. 7, two days after leaving Massachusetts. Joan immediately started job-hunting. She tried Bloomingdale's, F.W. Woolworth Co., Roy Rogers Family Restaurants and a few places she couldn't remember. No luck.

Residents at the park helped by giving her money. She finally went to the Virginia Employment Commission but said she was turned away because she was not a state resident. She said state employes told her they could have helped her had she found a job in Virginia -- under those circumstances, even if she were not a state resident, they could have given her aid until her first paycheck arrived.

One day last week, Joan sat in the District's Travelers Aid office, at 1015 12th St. NW, seeking emergency assistance to get back to Massachusetts. Travelers Aid has offices across the country and offers emergency assistance, counseling and sometimes money to stranded or confused travelers. America's new poor have put a strain on their limited resources.

"Right now, most people who come to the office are here because they come to the city to find work but can't," said harried executive director Pauline Dunn.

The Joads continued their long trip west and ended up defeated but determined to keep fighting. Joan was giving up and going back, but she was resolute. "My boss used to ask me how I make it (on $80-$100 a week) but said I could have the job back if he was still in business if I came back," she said.

There aren't any statistics that accurately measure how many Americans are on the road, looking for a better life. But the unemployment figures, already at a post-World War II peak and likely to climb past 10 percent this week, with no sign of improvement to come, provide hard evidence enough.

Steinbeck's road led to California, but for Joan and many others today, it seems to lead nowhere.