WITH EACH passing day it looks less likely that Congress will meet the May 15 deadline to keep the food stamp program in business for June. The effect of suspending the program even for a brief period will be terrible, and it will be terrible because the food stamp program is so precisely concentrated on the very poor. More than half the households receiving food stamps have a gross income -- right now -- of $3,600 a year or less. Fewer than 3 percent of the families are above the $9,000 line, and they are the ones with lots of mouths to feed. The average value of food stamps to these families is about 37 cents per person per meal. Not much by ordinary standards, perhaps, but on $3,600 a year, it is a tremendous difference.

People who get food stamps are not a permanent underclass of the wholly hopeless. For about two-thirds of the families, the program is a stopgap measure that helps them survive through seasonal layoffs, occasional financial disasters or the effects of recession. They move on and off the program as their circumstances change during the year. A lot more families of this type can be expected to need food stamps in the next few months as unemployment rises. So this is an especially cruel time to be fooling around with the notion of not having a program at all, as Congress seems to be.

Frantic contingency planning is now going on all over the country as state and local officials and voluntary groups try to figure out how to keep people in food if food stamps go. In the District alone, $3.5 million a month goes out for food stamps. There is no way an emergency food network can meet a need that size. What is most infuriating is that the enxiety and suspense are unnecessary: Congress has had months in which to get the required actions completed.

There is a chance they will make it. To do so means, of course, that a budget resolution, the authorizing legislation and appropriation must all be passed and settled in conference within the coming week. It will be hard to manage that, but it will be indecent not to.