Paul O'Neill thought he had a simple question and three days to find the answer.

After checking with his congressman, he headed for the Census Bureau's offices in Suitland where he figured he could find out the distribution of family income in the United States for every census since 1940.

Eventually he ended up in the agency's library where, he was told, he would be able to compile the information himself. But then the librarian suggested a shortcut: a chat with a bureaucrat on the next floor who should have all the answers.

There was one small problem: that official, it turned out, had left the agency eight years ago.

The 16-year-old's first confrontation with the federal bureaucracy was part of Dialogue, sponsored by the Wesley Foundation at Wayne State University in Detroit to give high school students "a concept of what the real world is about." To that end, they may spend time waiting in an unemployment line, or eating beans and rice with welfare mothers, or trying, as O'Neill and eight other students from Michigan did this week, to extract a piece of information from the federal government.

Jim Tuman, Dialogue's director, said it does not set out to convince the students that the federal government is one big ball of red tape.

"We told them that there may be some responsive people and some not-so-responsive people," he said. "But overall, we said, 'you may meet tremendous resistance.' "

Jan Miner, an articulate 15-year-old from Bay City, experienced some of that when she began researching how much money the United States spent on nuclear weapons each year since 1945, and what portion of the Defense Department's budget that outlay represented.

She started out in the office of her congressman, Democrat Bob Traxler. His legislative aide, Roger Szemeraj, turned out to "be the most helpful person I talked to," she said. But without the answers at his fingertips, Szemeraj referred her to the Library of Congress, the House Armed Services Committee, and the House Appropriations Committee ("a total mistake," she said).

At the committees, "No one wanted to talk to me," she said. "They mostly smiled and gave me books to read, telling me to look it up myself." But none of the books, she said, contained exactly what she wanted. "And they kept telling me that was classified information. It's not."

Although somewhat perturbed that "everyone kept treating me like a snotty little kid," Miner said she did learn that "the question is more vast than it is on a piece of paper," and that no single place seems to have all the information.

Keeley Lore, a 16-year-old from Bay City, set out to determine where food is grown in the United States and how it is distributed. But she said most of the people she approached at the Agriculture Department said they were too busy to help her. So she asked staffers at the Association of American Railroads and the National Farmers Union and made an appointment with a USDA official who she thought was the right person--"possibly."

"I've got a lot of referrals, but few answers," O'Neill agreed. He said he "lucked out" by getting in to see his congressman, Democrat Dale Kildee, who gave him "a good bit of background about government" before he headed for the Census Bureau. Eventually he determined that the Census Bureau did not break down income levels before 1950. Yesterday he went to the Internal Revenue Service and, after checking at offices in four different buildings, was referred to an office number that didn't exist.

"Every young adult should know how to deal with the federal government, know how to get information out of government officials, because years from today we'll be running this country," Miner said.

O'Neill said, "People here are so specialized."