THE ADMINISTRATION frequently argues that its multi-billion budget cuts have not actually reduced the amount spent on social programs --merely arrested their growth. That's true of the large social insurance programs that benefit, in the main, the middle class. But the small programs that serve the poor-- such as welfare for families and food stamps--have taken substantial real cuts and are due for more.

Quite soon, the Senate agriculture committee will renew its assault on food stamps. The $11 billion food stamp program took a $2.3 billion shellacking last year. Now--with food lines swelling at churches and soup kitchens around the country--the administration has asked Congress to chop another $2 billion from the program and more in the future.

That $2 billion cut would mean a 40 percent reduction in food aid for working-poor families-- thereby extinguishing about the last work incentive for the poor left in federal law. Even the aged and disabled would lose almost 30 percent of the benefits they are scheduled to receive next year.

Cutting another $2 billion or so from food stamps is fine by agriculture committee chairman Jesse Helms, but he would do it somewhat differently. His proposals include cutting out emergency aid, letting states put liens on the homes of the elderly, and disqualifying people who have bought burial insurance and plots on the ground--no kidding-- that they are property owners.

A somewhat more reasonable approach is being sponsored by Sen. Robert Dole and five other Republicans. It would simplify program administration and crack down further on program abuse. But the Dole proposal would also scale back cost-of-living adjustments over the next three years. Food stamps is the only social program that has already sustained a nine-month delay in inflation adjustment--a perverse distinction since the food stamp program is the only indexed benefit that has not been overadjusted for inflation in the past.

This is a sorry set of choices for the only federal assistance available to all the nation's poor. It is an especially poor commentary on the sensibilities of a Congress that has, in recent months, lined up to support tax breaks and off-budget benefits for some of the best-PAC'd lobbies in town.