One of six American households in 1983 received noncash government benefits based on need, such as Medicaid, food stamps or subsidized housing, the Census Bureau says.

The bureau, sampling 85.4 million households, found that 14.5 million received one or more means-tested benefits.

Medicaid, the federal-state medical program for low-income families with dependent children and for aged, blind or disabled people, was the most widely received benefit. It went to 8.1 million households, a small increase over 1982.

The bureau found that 7.2 million households received food stamps, 5.6 million got free or reduced-price school lunches and 3.2 million lived in publicly owned or subsidized housing. In each case, the figures for 1983 were almost the same as for 1982.

The benefits had a market value of $49.8 billion in 1983.

Although all the programs are designed to help those with low cash incomes, they are not restricted to people below the official poverty line, which was $10,178 for a family of four and $4,775 for a single elderly person in 1983.

The law allows people with somewhat higher incomes -- the "near poor" -- to receive benefits also. Each program has different rules.

The survey found that 50.6 percent of the households receiving means-tested benefits had cash income below the poverty line.

The study found that minorities, who generally have lower average incomes than whites, received a large share of the means-tested benefits. About a third of the households receiving each of the major means-tested benefits were black.