They do not fit easily into most pigeonholes that describe the casualties of economic hard times and do not come close to being "truly needy." But they outnumber the unemployed, and they, too, have experienced disruption of jobs and living standards, if not to the same degree.

They are found in more than 12 million households across the nation: persons who have less income in actual dollars now than a year ago because they have a lower-paying job or reduced work hours.

As found in a Washington Post-ABC News poll, these lesser victims of the recession cut a broad swath through American life. They are likely to be working class but not exclusively. Families of moderate to middle means--those with annual incomes of $12,000 to $30,000--are almost equally affected.

Some are angry, others thankful that they are not in worse circumstances.

"I worked in a hospital, and we cut back from 80 hours in a pay period to 72 hours," said Debra A. Ebeling, 25, a financial counselor at Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley, Calif. "My husband, he's construction and he didn't work hardly at all. We've just been able to make it. We save every little penny and it goes toward living."

Virginia K. Berlin, 61, worked 32 hours last week and 40 the week before at Stampings Inc., an auto parts firm in Roseville, Mich. But some other weeks are much worse.

"We fluctuate between four days and no days," she said. "However the car sales go, we go . . . . I have a terrible time with the heating bills. You put on more clothes, and you pray a lot."

"You don't buy the same cereals, you buy the cheapest things you can," said Michael E. Morris, 31, another Californian, who was a title officer in a Riverside real estate insurance firm before he had to take a lower managerial job and then a sales position. "I'm making less money now than I was seven years ago," he said.

Ebeling, Berlin and Morris were among 1,510 people selected randomly for interviews from Jan. 18-23 in the latest Post-ABC News poll. One in every seven, or 15 percent, said their household incomes had been reduced in the last year, not because of unemployment but because someone had to take a lower-paying job or because working hours were reduced.

Twenty-eight percent said someone in their household had lost a job in the last year. Taken together, the poll findings suggest that 43 percent, or more than 35 million households, have been getting by on reduced circumstances because of work that is not there.

Those figures may be high. Some people do not understand poll questions; others may exaggerate their problems in talking to media interviewers, and polls are not perfect instruments.

With that caveat, the figures show a doubling since October, when 22 percent in a similar Post-ABC News poll said their household incomes had been reduced in the last year by a forced change in jobs or shortened work hours (a combined 9 percent) or unemployment (13 percent).

Families hurt by reduced employment are found in all regions, suburbs and small towns, and there are as many whites as blacks. Some other figures:

* In the Midwest, 18 percent said someone in the household took a lower-paying job or had to work fewer hours last year. The figure was 14 percent in the West and South and 13 percent in the East.

* Even one in 10 households with incomes of more than $30,000 a year experienced pay cuts, compared to one in five of those earning $20,000 to $30,000 and one in six with incomes from $8,000 to $20,000.

* In households where someone took a pay cut, one in four employed persons feared losing their job in the next six months. Partly because of such fears, workers who took lower paying jobs are thankful that things are not worse.

"I've been very lucky," said Joseph D. LaFace, an economics professor laid off by the University of Central Arkansas last year. "I looked for almost four months in banking, and there was absolutely nothing."

LaFace now works as an economist for the state of Arkansas, and his wife works at a gift shop for the minimum wage. Although he is making somewhat less than before, their combined income is still more than $24,000 a year, he said.

Most workers have absorbed income losses by hunkering down.

One series of questions in the poll asked whether financial strain has kept someone in a household or the immediate family from going to college, paying debts, vacationing or buying a car or home. Those in reduced-income households said "yes" at a rate more than double that of the rest of the population.

Many of the reduced-income families blame President Reagan, at least in part, for economic conditions.

By 69 to 28 percent, they disapprove of his "handling of the economy," in sharp contrast to the narrow 49-to-45 ratio of disapproval among others interviewed.