"Now where did they get that from?"

"Say what?" "That's a bunch of stuff!"

"Government did that study? Tell Government to come here!"

For a small group of elderly black men gathered to play pool at the United Way's Barney Senior Center in Adams-Morgan, the Census Bureau's finding that most senior citizens are better off than the average American was the best laugh they'd had in a long time.

The new Census report notes that senior citizens pay less taxes than other adults. Consequently, their average per capita, after-tax income was $6,300, in 1980, versus $5,964 for the population as a whole.

But for District senior citizens who are already pinching pennies and wondering what other expenses they can cut from their lives when the next rent increase comes, yesterday's story provoked reactions ranging from loud laughter to open disbelief. The population of the District of Columbia is about 70 percent black, and Census figures from a study made public last month show that of all poor people, elderly blacks are among the poorest: 38.2 per cent of all blacks over 65 live beneath the poverty level.

"I get a Social Security check for $319 a month. My rent is $278," said Olive Spence, a 69-year old woman from Mount Pleasant who had come into the Barney Senior Center for companionship and a free lunch. "They are just painting my building again," she said with a Caribbean lilt, "so you know they are going to raise the rent. How do I get by? Only the Lord knows."

Many who obviously considered themselves average Americans took their own economic situation as proof that most elderly people live badly.

"You should see what I live in," one senior citizen said. Others disagreed with the premise that a 30-year-old and a 70-year-old each receiving $500 a month are in the same situation.

"You can't compare people making salaries with people with a fixed income," one of the pool players at the Barney Senior Center said. "That's why we got to come to places like this. Otherwise we couldn't get by."

Other players mentioned large medical expenses and the fact that so many of the elderly live alone as reasons why their real standard of living is lower than that of someone earning a similar amount in wages and sharing household expenses.

A group of senior citizens eating lunch at the Church of St. Stephen and the Incarnation, at 16th and Newton streets NW, also found the Census findings unbelievable.

"I don't think I'm better off than most people. In fact, I know I'm worse off," said Elizabeth Washington. Together with her husband, she shows up regularly at the church to eat the free lunch offered.

"Three ounces of meat, a spoonful of starch, and a spoonful of vegetables-- don't think it's any big deal," said the church cook, but for the Washingtons and Eleanor Walker, 93, sitting with them at the table, it's vital nutrition.

"This is my main meal," Walker said, after raising a tiny glass of orange juice to toast her neighbor with. "It's well-balanced, and eaten in pleasant company."

For Walker and her neighbor, Edward Wong, 69, it was important to believe that they were not charity cases.

Chewing slowly on his three ounces of fish on a bun, Wong said, "This is a very good lunch. It is not just for poor. Not for rich either. Congress gives the money to this church to pay for it. We are not welfare."

And then, more thoughtfully, "It's very hard to say if I live better than most Americans. Very many people don't have enough to eat. They are worse."