When it comes to unemployment, this is the belly of the beast.

For a year and a half, the jobless rate here in the nation's biggest company town, home to 10 different General Motors plants, hovered around 15 percent. Then things took a nose dive.

Now, with its rate fluctuating between 20 and 25 percent all year, Flint holds the dubious distinction of being the most out-of-work city in the country, and it's been hurting harder longer than anyplace else.

"Like a cold you just can't shake," sighed Eugene Talsma, director of a non-profit family counseling agency whose client rolls have more than doubled in the past two years.

The affliction touches everything. The welfare rolls are up by 50 percent in the last two years, as some 20,000 of the jobless who've exhausted all their benefits have had to trade down from the unemployment compensation line to the food stamp and Aid to Families with Dependent Children lines.

Crime is up. So, to the degree these things can be measured, are alcohol abuse and wife beating.

So are bankruptcies, foreclosures and garage sales. So are migration out and church attendance.

The local Army recruiting office is exceeding its quotas easily; the Rescue Mission has doubled its nightly hot dinner service, and the pool of donors to the commercial blood blank downtown keeps getting bigger.

The most popular bit of gallows humor here is that lumber is about to overtake autos as the lead industry in town. That's how much plywood is getting sold to board up the storefronts of failed businesses.

For a hard-times tableau, you won't find a much more vivid scene than the one at what used to be a thriving shopping center near a big Buick plant on the north side of town.

Behind the sea of potholes and rubble that passes for a parking lot, there are just four going enterprises: an unemployment compensation office, where 1,100 jobless stream in each day for their checks; a furniture liquidation warehouse, which has too much stock and not enough customers; a Goodwill store, which has too many customers and not enough stock, and a pawnshop, where the man behind the counter, Rick Reo, insists that "business is the same as ever. You catch some people coming, some going. There's still money out there."

He has a point. For all of the evident distress, there is another side to the unemployment story in this blue-collar town of 193,000. No one is selling apples in the street. No one is going hungry. Last winter no one, as far as anyone can tell, went cold.

The network of public, private and religious relief organizations, strained mightily by their own nightmare of budget and personnel cuts, have stretched here and doubled up there and managed to keep a floor beneath the worst of the suffering.

The jobless benefits, curtailed somewhat by the Reagan administration, still run for up to 39 weeks. The supplemental unemployment benefits won by the United Auto Workers bring a laid-off worker's income to 95 percent of base take-home pay and can last, depending on seniority, for up to a year.

The problem is that more and more people have by this stage of the recession run through both. For them, survival has become a matter of relying on savings or family or welfare, or of scrounging for work in a tougher-than-nails job market.

Even for those willing to take big salary cuts, work isn't easy to find.

Last month Chuck Warren applied for a job as a grocery store clerk, the same job from which he'd been laid off six months earlier. In the interim, the store had gone under and was being reopened under new ownership as a nonunion shop. Salaries were down by 40 percent. Still, when Warren went to apply for one of the few dozen jobs, he found 2,000 other people in line, some of whom had camped out overnight.Crime is up. So are bankruptcies, foreclosures and garage sales.

With all of the hardship, Flint might seem to be a candidate for mass hara-kiri. It isn't. Through it all, there remains an indomitable spirit, an abiding, if perhaps misplaced, sense of hope.

"In many ways the community is doing remarkably well," said Melvyn Brannon, president of the Urban League. "The big danger I see is a reluctance to let go, to make a change, to accept the fact that the auto industry is never going to come back to where it was."

"It kind of amazes me," said counselor Talsma. "The gloom and doom, you just don't find it. There's plenty of stress, but I really get the sense that most people, through it all, are pretty optimistic."

The resilience is bound up in the city's heritage. Flint has been a boom-bust town ever since General Motors opened its first plant here a half century ago, and it is well-cushioned, both financially and psychologically, for the cycles.

It has helped that when times were good in Flint, they were very, very good. As recently as the late 1970s, when GM employment reached its historic high of 78,000 (accounting for roughly 60 percent of the local work force), the city's average pay of $18,700 was second in the nation only to that of Anchorage.

It was a life style built on high wages and plenty of overtime. People streamed up from the farmlands of the Deep South and Ohio Valley after World War II to find themselves making more money than they ever dreamed possible. They bought houses. They bought first cars and then second cars. They bought boats, they bought recreational vehicles, they bought snowmobiles, they bought cabins up north.

They had known recessions before; just about everyone had gone through a layoff at one time or another. But the layoffs had never, not since the Great Depression, lasted anything like this long.

So, to borrow a term from the world of art museums, they have begun de-accessing.

Steve Birch, 27 and the father of three, who's been laid off since the beginning of the year from a $9.63-an-hour job at the A.C. Spark Plugs division, says the toughest thing he'd been through so far has been "selling off one of my cars--my pride and joy, a '73 Monte Carlo."

Charles Williams, deputy director of the county's Social Services Department, said, "You wouldn't believe the resentment we get from people when we tell them that in order to qualify for assistance they have to sell off some of their possessions. Their attitude is that they'd been paying for these programs all along with their tax dollars, and now that they need them they ought to automatically qualify."

If the nouveau poor of Flint have been one through one kind of hell, the old poor are living through another.

Brannon said the pool of high-wage earners in the job market are bumping marginal, low-skilled employes from jobs. The result, he said, is a pile-up of suffering at the low end. He estimated that among blacks, who comprise nearly half the city's population, the unemployment rate is more like 40 percent.

"No matter what your situation is," he added, "people who have coping skills will get by. There was a fire the other day in a house that was supposedly rented to a woman and her four kids. When everybody had streamed out, the police counted up three women and 14 kids. They'd all put up together under one roof and one rent. Some call that sneaky; I call it survival."

Survival also means, for some, leaving town. No one has hard figures, but everyone seems to know someone who's packed up his dreams and headed for Houston.

Chris Flanders, 25, said a dozen of his high school buddies have gone south. Like him, most started out in the auto factories in the booming late 1970s and prospered.

Flanders said he earned $27,000 when he was 22, working lots of overtime on a paint spray line. Laid off for the past year, he has since finished college and has been working as a counselor at a UAW unemployment crisis center, making $19,000 a year.

For a number of his buddies, he said, the promise of the good life as Urban Cowboy turned out to have been oversold. "I'd guess half of them have come back," he said. "Either they couldn't find decent jobs, or they just missed Flint."

Flint is not alone. There are 617,000 unemployed workers in the state of Michigan. If you lined them all up, they would stretch from the Washington Monument to Faneuil Hall in Boston, a congressional staffer recently figured. The state's 14.3 percent May unemployment rate is highest among the nation's 10 largest states.

And yet Michigan is in the grip of a series of unemployment-related Catch-22s. One has to do with extended benefits. The federal government, during times of high unemployment, tacks on an extra 13 weeks to the the normal 26 of state-paid benefits.

As a result of last year's budget cuts and a stiffening of eligibility requirements, Flint and some other Michigan cities were disqualified for the extended benefit program for three months earlier this year. The reason: tens of thousands of their unemployed had already exhausted their benefits, and under the triggering formula, did not count among the unemployed.

There are other problems in Michigan. The state's unemployment compensation fund is $1.6 billion in arrears to the federal government. It cannot hope to pay it back, since outgo from the fund always exceeds income during times of high unemployment. Still, the federal government has begun charging the state interest on the funds it owes, and it is about to tack on a penalty tax to Michigan employers--despite the fact that the state already has the nation's highest unemployment tax. This, Michigan fears, will drive more businesses away.

On top of this, more cuts in the unemployment compensation program, through tightened eligibility requirements, are scheduled to kick in in October. The Michigan congressional delegation is up in arms.

Its members in both House and Senate support bills to do away with the penalty tax and the interest charges, and to extend unemployment benefits to a total of to 52 weeks, where it was during the last recession.

But, even in the belly of the beast, some don't agree. Dwaine Ellsworth, senior mortgage officer of Gennesse Bank, Flint's biggest, says he gets "a little bit bugged" by an unemployment compensation system, that, he says, invites people to slack off. "I've got a son-in-law who's about at the end of his rope with the benefits now, so he's starting to look. Until now, he hasn't turned a finger."