When President Reagan's welfare cuts went into effect on Oct. 1, the Prince George's County welfare office in Hyattsville was braced for big trouble from recipients who would be losing their monthly welfare check. The boss warned his staff to be ready to work overtime on the flood of appeals he expected from victims of the cuts.

The staff was ready, but nothing happened. "I don't know if they don't realize what's hit them, or what," said Robert McCormack, a supervisor in the office that administers Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) in Prince George's.

Richard Smith, who runs AFDC in the county, had predicted up to 200 appeals from the 900 welfare clients -- 10 percent of all county welfare recipients, mostly working women who have children but not husbands -- who were dropped because of the cuts. Since October, exactly 10 appeals have been filed.

This seeming indifference is instructive. The Reagan administration has taken a swipe at the welfare system that can easily be portrayed as harsh treatment for poor people, but a close examination of the new welfare cuts on the ground in Prince George's County challenges any stark description of their consequences. Welfare cuts make grim lives grimmer, but the new regulations cannot easily be blamed for causing fundamental changes in the way many people live -- at least not yet.

Using Prince George's County as a laboratory produces only one clear conclusion about the Reagan welfare cuts: The poor who do not work have been unaffected by the new policy. With few exceptions they get the same benefits they received previously, and they have no inducement to go to work. The working poor, on the other hand, now have significant new inducements to quit work if their principal concern is to maximize their welfare benefits and retain the sense of security that comes with being a ward of the state.

In more specific terms, it is too soon to assess the impact of these welfare cuts, which will have different consequences in different states, depending on local welfare policy. Here as elsewhere the full effects of the cuts will not be felt for months, and their impact on the federal budget will never be precisely measurable.

The American welfare system is a flowing river that cannot be blocked by an order from Washington changing the rules of eligibility. And that is what the Reagan changes did -- alter eligibility standards so that some "marginal" welfare recipients would be dropped from the rolls. In Prince George's County, for example, 75 people are applying for welfare benefits every day, 60 percent of whom are former recipients who got off welfare sometime in the past and now want to get back on.

Already among that latter group are some of the people who were dropped from the welfare rolls in October because of the Reagan cuts. According to Mary Hill, 26, a social worker in the Prince George's AFDC office in Hyattsville, welfare recipients dropped in October "are coming back because they either split with their husbands, or quit their jobs because they couldn't find babysitters." Of the 42 "clients" Mrs. Hill dropped from her caseload in October because of the new regulations, six now are back on her list of active AFDC recipients.

The budget savings also are difficult to identify because money lost to some recipients as a result of cuts in AFDC grants can be partially made up by additional food stamps or in reduced rentals for those who live in government-subsidized housing. As one's income declines -- and an AFDC grant is considered income -- one is eligible for more food stamps. And in subsidized housing where rent is a fixed percentage of income, lower income means lower rent -- with the Department of Housing and Urban Development left to make up the difference. "What Reagan is doing is passing the costs from one agency to another," a Prince George's housing official observed.

Probably most significant, at a time of sharply rising unemployment, marginal savings in the size of welfare grants easily can be wiped out by increased expenditures to help newly unemployed people who become eligible for welfare. In a declining economy there are more and more people with no income because they have no work.

The results of the Reagan welfare cuts are most readily apparent among the working poor. According to Smith, the county's AFDC director, "you had to be better off by going to work" before the Reagan administration's Oct. 1 changes. Under the old rules, the typical mother receiving welfare could take a job knowing that it would increase her net income and probably not force her off the welfare rolls, though if she did well working and began to make significantly more than the minimum wage, her welfare grant would shrink and eventually could be eliminated.

Now a working woman cannot qualify for supplementary welfare aid unless she has a large number of children or if she only works part time at a low-paying job. Under the post-Oct. 1 regulations in Maryland, a mother with two children -- the most typical AFDC recipient -- is ineligible for welfare if she earns more than $405 a month. Someone working full-time at a minimum wage job ($3.35 an hour) makes $576.20 a month.

To qualify for welfare in Maryland now, a woman with such a job would have to be supporting five or more children. A woman making $5 an hour -- $860 a month -- would have to have at least nine dependent children to be eligible for welfare.

Before Oct. 1, a welfare applicant could deduct certain costs of living and working from her income before her eligibility was determined. She was entitled to deductions for travel to and from work, for day care, for medical bills and some other expenses. Under the new rules the gross income standard is all that matters. According to Smith, a woman whose previously valid expenses wiped out her entire income would not now be eligible for welfare if her earnings go above the cut-off level.

In September more than 10 percent of the county's 8,299 AFDC recipients were "working poor," but today only a handful of working women are still on the welfare rolls. Nearly all working welfare recipients were forced off welfare by the new regulations. By losing their welfare eligibility, most of these women lost their access to free medical care under Medicaid, too.

"The clients I like the most and want to help the most," said Janine DePasquale, another Prince George's social worker, "are the ones Reagan won't let me help. They're trying, and they see others who aren't trying doing better than they are."

DePasquale, a diminuitive woman who looks younger than her 23 years, has only been working in the Hyattsville AFDC office for 10 months. After the Oct. 1 changes she dropped 32 people from her caseload, nearly all working women. Now she has just eight working women on her rolls, none of whom gross more than $250 a month from their jobs.

DePasquale described herself as a protected, upper-middle-class product of suburban Philadelphia who was not adequately prepared for the world of welfare. Her 10 months as a caseworker for AFDC recipients have introduced her to the full range of frustrations that accompany welfare in America. She describes those months as an emotional elevator ride of jarring ups and downs.

She said some clients have a "greedy, you-owe-it-to-me" attitude toward welfare that can be infuriating. Some of the clients evoke no sympathy at all from her. "But the louder they holler the more they'll get. Everybody has one really horrible client on their caseload. Mine will get anything she wants if she just won't give me a hard time."

Other cases touch her personally. She recounted the story of a 31-year-old mother of three whose husband had to quit his job as an auto body man because of poor health. He has had a workmen's compensation claim pending for two years, and the mother is the family breadwinner. Before Oct. 1 she had a part-time job in a school cafeteria for $67 a week and an AFDC grant of $262 a month, plus $169 in food stamps.

To improve her family's situation, DePasquale recounted, this woman took a full-time job paying $670 a month. Because of it she lost her welfare grant, but now gets $173 in food stamps. She has lost her medical coverage, and will not get any health insurance until she has been on the new job at least six months . . . and now her entire income is taxable.

This woman is unusual, DePasquale said, because she is willing to take a risk. "I think most of the clients are just afraid, afraid to do it on their own." DePasquale said. By "it" she meant live life on their own. "The whole system is just a cycle that perpetuates their dependency . . . A lot of them have very low self-esteem, very low." She said she argues with clients that they should keep working not simply for money, but because work can be a ticket to self-esteem and eventual escape from welfare dependency. Those arguments often are fruitless, she said.

To prove the point she cited another of her cases, a 16-year-old mother who is two years too young to get AFDC for herself, but can get it for her infant. She had a part-time job at McDonald's making about $200 a month when the new regulations went into effect Oct. 1. They stipulated that if her income was more than $180 monthly, she would lose her welfare grant. She quit the job, instead.

The life of an AFDC caseworker is not easy. Mary Hill and DePasquale are both newcomers to it (each earns $10,800 a year for long, grueling days dealing with new applicants and old clients), but Mary Brown has been on the job for 17 years. A handsome black woman, Brown approves of some of the Reagan administration's new regulations.

She said it was a good idea, for example, to require a stepfather who is married to a welfare recipient to reveal his income and to let it be calculated when measuring her eligibility. She also thinks it is fine to stop paying AFDC benefits to unborn children, since their mothers are eligible for Medicaid and can get prenatal care. But she too is upset that the principal victims of the changes have been "people who were at least trying."

None of these social workers can explain just why there has been so little reaction to the cuts from affected recipients. All are surprised. They talk of discouraged people, people who do not feel in control of their own destiny, but it seems clear that the social workers just do not know why there were not more protests. (In the entire state of Maryland, there have only been 30 appeals from recipients cut off welfare since Oct. 1).

There was grumbling, much of it directed personally at Reagan. Mary Hill said she began asking complaining clients who were losing their benefits if they had voted in the 1980 presidential election. "None had," she said. In September a number of her clients called her to ask how they could get to the "Solidarity Day" rally on the Mall to protest the president's budget cuts.

According to the AFDC office, the loudest complaints they have heard since Oct. 1 have come from an unexpected quarter: from men married to welfare recipients who are not the fathers of those women's children. These are the stepparents who now must report their income if their wives want to continue to get welfare. Many of the men have protested against this "invasion of privacy."

Living at close quarters with welfare recipients, these social workers develop a keen sense of what life is like in the welfare culture. They say that their clients often are incapable of making any long-term plans for themselves or their children. They also say that fraud and cheating is widespread, and they are frustrated by their inability to do much about it.

Mary Hill, for example, pointed to the file cabinet that holds her caseload and said: "I guarantee you at least 25 percent of the cases in that drawer have some fraud." The most common forms of cheating, Hill said, are unreported outside income and financial help from boyfriends.

Hill is annoyed by a form of petty corner-cutting by some welfare recipients -- "lost identification cards." Every AFDC client gets an ID with a color photo of her on it. If they come to the main office to pick up their monthly checks, they must present this card. They easily can say they have lost the card and get a new one on the spot, so some clients, Hill said, do not worry about it. "But each one costs the county $1.50 and they get them replaced for free," she said.

The county cannot do much of anything about any reported welfare fraud. Hill said that attempts to collect past overpayments of welfare aid are so far behind that the collectors now are working on 1976 cases. That means, she calculated, that if she reports today that a client has been getting more money than she deserved, it would be five years before any action is taken to collect that money -- by which time the client will have forgotten all details of the episode.

Robert Smith, the county AFDC director, said the state of Maryland has only assigned only one full-time and one part-time welfare inspector to the entire county, which is second in the state to the city of Baltimore in its number of welfare clients. It is so hard to insure that applicants and recipients are telling the truth about their circumstances that "unfortunately, you probably can -- lie to the system with impunity," Smith said in an interview.

Though frustrating, this state of affairs strikes the social workers in Hyattsville as essentially unavoidable. The alternative -- rigorous policing of the lives of some 9,000 families -- seems like an impossible task, especially to these overworked people. Tomorrow: The story of two women in Prince George's County who lost welfare aid.