Manassas residents Kevin and Cynthia Cosgrove hovered for years near poverty. Now, the Washington area's economic slowdown has shoved them into its grip.

Two months ago, when the slumping real estate market reduced the demand for cabinetmakers, Old Town Woodworking laid Kevin Cosgrove off from his $315-a-week job. He has been unable to find another, although he applied for work with construction companies, soda bottling factories and the state highway department.

Cynthia, 39, stopped working as a clerk at a local 7-Eleven during her difficult pregnancy with their son, Greg, now 17 months old, and has not worked since.

"Even if I find a job today," Kevin said, "I'm still going to owe $1,300 in {back} rent."

The Cosgroves are living on Kevin's $176 weekly unemployment check, the equivalent of $9,152 a year, and $138 a month in food stamps. The Census Bureau defined the poverty line for a three-person household as cash income of $9,885 a year in 1989.

The Census Bureau reported Wednesday that 12.8 percent of all Americans -- 31.5 million people -- are living in poverty. The poverty rate has remained virtually unchanged since 1988, but an expected recession is likely to suck even more Americans into hard times.

For the Cosgroves, every day is a struggle.

Their phone was turned off three months ago; Greg needs an operation on his foot; and they already owe about $6,000 to doctors and hospitals, because they have never had health insurance.

"At least we know we've got {the food stamps} coming for his milk. He drinks about four gallons a week himself, and you can't get much more than that for $35 a week," said Cynthia. But food stamps can't be used for paper products, and Greg goes through $10 in disposable diapers -- even the cheapest brand -- in a week.

Each morning Kevin, 26, eagerly scans the classified ads. "There's nothing," he said. Still, he doesn't dare drive around looking for "help wanted" signs because "the more I run around, the more gas I'm going to waste."

According to the Census Bureau, 10 percent of whites -- or 20.8 million -- lived in poverty in 1989, as did 9.3 million blacks -- or 30.7 percent. More than 5.4 million people of Hispanic origin -- or 26.2 percent -- fell below the poverty line.

The Cosgroves are part of a surge in the number of Washington area families getting government aid. The number of Prince William County families who sought food stamps is 34 percent higher compared with a year ago, and the number climbed 40 percent in Prince George's County.

"Our cases are now at the same level as in the recession in 1982-1983," said Judith Hays, director of the Manassas Social Services Department.

The Washington area's July unemployment rate of 3.2 percent was substantially better than the national 5.5 percent rate, but it has risen nearly a full point in six months.

"I even thought about going to some other state, but . . . this is where the jobs are supposed to be," said Kevin, who has never been unemployed before.

The Cosgroves' situation may get worse. Kevin's unemployment checks will stop coming in a month, and their landlord has started eviction proceedings. They expect to be thrown out of their $500-a-month two-bedroom apartment in mid-October.

"I thought of asking my brother {for help}, but his wife's business fell through," Cynthia said. "Most {rented} rooms won't take couples or they won't take a kid."

The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments calls the shortage of affordable housing one of the region's top problems.

With no money to spare, the Cosgroves spend their time sleeping, eating, cleaning their spotless house and watching the television they recently retrieved from a pawnshop. They can't remember when they last went to the movies, and they haven't bought Greg a new toy since Christmas.

"We did take him to the {Prince William} fair. We didn't really have the money, but I wanted him to play with the animals," Cynthia said.

More government aid may be available, but the Cosgroves don't know where to get it. They stumbled onto the Medicaid program for small children purely by chance while applying for food stamps.

When Cynthia Cosgrove wondered aloud whether they could get help paying for an operation to relax Greg's Achilles' tendon, the caseworker suggested a Medicaid card. His first appointment at Children's Hospital in the District is scheduled for October.

Meanwhile, the couple lie awake at night thinking of the unpaid bills and wondering about tomorrow.

"Once you get behind, you never get caught up unless you win the lottery," Cynthia Cosgrove said. "I'm scared to buy a lottery ticket because we might need the dollar."