The only area in the country in which poverty declined during the last decade is in the farmlands and hamlets below the Mason-Dixon Line, according to government figures. As a consequence, the poor in the South increasingly resemble the poor in other regions.

They are more likely now to live in the city, be mothers raising children alone or be elderly or handicapped. They are less likely to be working and more dependent on welfare than in the past. They are increasingly those least able to take advantage of employment opportunities when they come along according to government analysts.

Like Janice Pearson: A slender woman of 30, she doesn't know anything about the transfusion of jobs, money and people into the southern economy. She lives with her three children in a crime-ridden, rat-infested, overcrowded inner-city housing project here in the buckle of the Bible Belt. All she has to say about regional economics is that she thinks mothers on welfare in the North are treated better than in the South.

"My cousin in New York only has one child, and her child [aid to families with dependent children] is more than what I get with three kids," she said. The cousin receives $90 twice a month, and she gets $148 once a month.

It's true that, although the tide of economic advantage is finally flowing into the South, the region still remains in many ways a barefoot cousin to the wealthier North. The differences, however, are diminishing.

The South is the only region where poverty has declined since 1969, and all of the decline has occurred outside metropolitan areas, according to Census Bureau official Gordon Green. Ten years ago, 18 percent of the South's residents lived in poverty, compared with about 15 percent in the most recent figures. Other regions have remained level, at about 10 percent.

The number of poor in the South, as well as the percentage, went down; from 11.1 million in 1969 to 10.6 million in 1978, according to Census Bureau surveys. In all other regions, the number of poor rose from 13.1 million to 14.2 million.

This has happened during a time the national population rose by 11.4 percent, people moved in significant numbers from the North to the South (and West) and also started moving out of cities and into rural and small town settings.

"You cannot depend on economic growth to reduce the poverty rate in certain groups, but must continue to target policies at certain subgroups with the population," said Bernard Gifford of the Russell Page Foundation in New York City. He has done a study of the impact of economic growth on poverty and the accumulation of the poor in the nation's inner cities.

While southern poor are still vastly more rural and black than the poor in other areas, figures indicate the gap is closing. But for some, the gap is still a gap.

When Ford Motor Co. moved a plant into the Nashville area, for instance, "many of the black men had priority on jobs -- at many levels, because of affirmative action," said Dr. Lou Beasley of the University of Tennessee School of Social Work. "But now that the plant is laying off, many of these people were hired late and they're the first to go. . . . When hard choices have to be made. I think we're going to be right back where we were."

The sex of the household head sometimes appeared to be a more significant factor than race in a family's ability to escape poverty, statistics assembled by the Census Bureau's Carol Fendler indicate.

In the South outside metropolitan areas, all of the decrease in poverty occurred in households headed by males, black as well as white. Their numbers dropped from 1.1 million to 800,000. But the number of poor female-headed households remained steady, at 400,000.

"Honey, these people would be glad to get off this welfare. To me welfare is an insult to your intelligence," said Juanita Jordan, 51, a widowed mother of five, who has observed life in Andrew Jackson Courts, a Nashville housing project, for 28 years. There is a tradition of work in her family and the swell in the prospects of her children, she emphasizes, comes from hard work.

Her eldest daughter has five children.But the next two, ages 20 and 18, are attending a nearby college on assistance grants (a program threatened by the Reagan administration). The two youngest are attending a suburban high school, one working as a dishwasher on the night shift.

"The kids, as soon as they are old enough, get jobs," she said. She does not receive AFDC but depends primarily on Social Security benefits earned by her late husband, who worked as a chauffeur and butler.

She is uneasy about the future of her children even with a good education. "They got that new Datsun factory coming in, but I hear they got 2,000 people lined up for one job . . . . "Some of these young women don't know nothing to do. What would they do if they did get a job? Some of them never even learned to cook a meal, because their mothers did it for them."

Janice Pearson has been through training programs for key punch operators, she said, but they have not let to jobs. She tried to explain. "Lots of times the training just don't fit the jobs . . . . You got to be experienced."

In the "poverty clusters" of the inner city, where the nation's poor gradually seem to be congregating, brick walls and cement moats blot out the rhythms of nature and limit the horizons. To a greater degree than the rural poor, they are cut off from a normal landscape of work and play.

The poor women here, often second- or third-generation welfare recipients, "can't see beyond the street where they live. They feel a kind of dismay," said Joyce Hyde, a social worker with the United Methodist Neighborhood Center. "They can no longer hope for the future, they can't dream."

"Their children can. You ask them what they want to be and they grin and say, 'a fireman,' or 'a policeman.'"

But the children, too, start to "come to grips" with the brick horizon at about age 11, she added. "They'll start to lose their imagination."

Pearson, asked about her hopes for her three children, shrugged and thought a while, shaking her head, smiling shyly. She was spending a balmy morning gluing bric-a-brac ribbons on a flower pot with some of the other project mothers while the kids were in school. It was part of a strategy by the neighborhood center to help the mothers break out of their isolation at home, and at the same time brighten their bleak quarters with green plants.

I don't like to just lay at home lookin' at TV," Pearson said. "It gets lonely. I'm a goin' person."

In the South, wage levels have always been lower than in other regions and still are, with blacks averaging much lower earnings than whites. Accordingly, a higher proportion of the full-time working poor -- black as well as white -- remained below the poverty line compared with other regions, according to Molly Sharansky, a poverty specialist with the Social Security Administration.

Now many of the elderly who worked all their lives are receiving low retirement income based on those depressed wages, she said. "They're the left-behind ones, and no matter what jobs are out there, they don't have a chance to make it up now, when they're old."

Blacks are still far more likely to be poor than white nationwide.While the South has always outstripped other areas in that respect, the rest of the country seems to be catching up, thus narrowing another traditional gap.

The proportion of black poor in the South has remained virtually stable -- 43 or 44 percent since 1970. But the proportion of black poor in the non-South has risen from 17 percent of all poor to 22 percent.

The official poverty line set by the government fluctuates with consumer price index.

"If the earlier patterns continue," census analyst Larry Long said, "we can anticipate that the poverty rates in the South and the North will eventually equalize."

"To me," Pearson said, "I don't see nothing changing."