When President Reagan took office in 1981, he announced his intention to cut social welfare programs that provided benefits "where real need cannot be demonstrated."

At the same time, he pledged that "those who through no fault of their own must depend on the rest of us, the poverty stricken, the disabled, the elderly, all those with true need can rest assured that the social safety net of programs they depend on are exempt from any cuts." Since then, Reagan has proposed and Congress has enacted, often after modifications, a series of changes reducing eligibility, benefit levels or funding for many of the federal "safety net" programs that assist at least 50 million elderly, ill and low-income Americans each year.

One effect of those changes was to lower the cost of these programs by 6 percent to 10 percent. Experts and politicians still argue about the impact of those changes on the people who benefit from the programs. The safety net is still there, but in some ways it works differently. The strands are thinner.

Definitions of the "safety net" vary. Broadly, it includes the "human resource" programs that in 1980, the year before Reagan became president, cost the federal government the equivalent of $439 billion in 1987 dollars, or $1,928 for each American, according to the Congressional Research Service.

It includes programs like Social Security and Medicare that are available to all qualifying citizens, regardless of their wealth or income. And it includes programs that are available only to people whose incomes fall below poverty levels, including Aid to Families with Dependent Children (welfare), aid to the low-income aged, blind and disabled (Supplemental Security Income), food stamps and Medicaid, education and training and service programs for low-income people.

On the surface, it looks as broad as in 1980. Human resource outlays in 1987 were $502 billion, or $2,060 per person, and the administration calculates that a selected group of "core" programs aimed at the poor rose from $62 billion to $76 billion measured in constant 1982 dollars.

But these figures do not tell the whole story.

Although total federal spending for all "human resource" programs has gone up $63 billion since 1980, Social Security and Medicare alone went up $74 billion because of an increasing aged population, higher earnings records of new retirees entitling them to larger benefits than their predecessors and medical inflation far over general price increases.

This means that the combined total for all other safety net programs was lower in real dollars than in 1980, although some fell and others rose. Education and training took the biggest cuts.

Bill Duggan, 83, tells one story of the effect of the Reagan-era changes. When his wife, Katherine, 85, lay dying of Alzheimer's disease and had to be tube-fed and fitted with a permanent catheter, Bill lifted her from her soiled bed each morning in their Boca Raton, Fla., retirement home and gave her a bath.

"I loved her -- it wasn't hard -- we were married 61 years," Duggan said.

"They told me she didn't know me any more," he said in a breaking voice, "but when I'd say, 'Sweetheart, give me a kiss,' I could swear she'd pucker up her lips -- she knew me."

But Duggan had severe arthritis and needed help to bathe his wife. So Medicare provided a home health aide, usually six mornings a week.

Then, in 1986, Medicare made a policy interpretation that a federal judge recently ruled "contrary to the plain language of the Medicare Act." Officials decided that six days a week of Medicare home care was too much; the limit should be four days.

"So I couldn't bathe her the other three days," Duggan said. Already spending $450 a month for an afternoon-evening housekeeper, he could not afford regular morning help. So he hired people intermittently to help bathe his wife and asked friends.

"A woman who can't walk, can't talk, is tube-fed," he said recalling his wife, who died last year, "the government refused to pay."

Any attempt to evaluate the effects of the cuts of the last eight years leads to individual stories like that. Numbers also describe the changes, of course, but the large numbers involved in these programs can quickly become numbing statistics.

Congressional Budget Office calculations show that today more Americans need government help to escape poverty than in 1980 and that the amount they need is greater per person.

The reason, said economist Joseph Minarik of the Urban Institute, is that the poorest fifth of the population is not sharing proportionately in the country's current overall well-being. This explains why outlays for social programs can be larger without necessarily meeting people's needs as well as the same programs did before Reagan.

One simple way to measure the Reagan-era changes is this: Spending for major safety net programs was about 6 percent to 10 percent less annually in 1986 to 1988 than it would have been if Reagan had not altered the rules, according to separate estimates by economist John Palmer, dean of the Syracuse University Maxwell School; Brookings Institution economist Robert Reischauer, and Reagan's ex-budget director David A. Stockman.

Palmer calculated earlier that the reductions would have been twice as large if Congress had not rejected many of Reagan's proposals.

Many major changes were engineered by Reagan. For example:442,000 families (more than a million individuals) lost all benefits under the basic welfare program, AFDC. The benefits of 290,000 more were reduced when Reagan persuaded Congress to lower the amount of money a welfare recipient could earn without forfeiting some or all AFDC benefits. Loss of AFDC generally brings automatic loss of Medicaid later.

A program providing an extra 13 weeks of unemployment benefits to workers who are still jobless after exhausting their basic 26 week benefit has been virtually abolished by eligibility changes.

Subsidies for construction of new low-income housing units have been all but wiped out. The government is assisting 4.2 million families, a third more than in 1981, but much of the growth was authorized by Congress before Reagan became president. Barry Zigas, president of the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, said that because commercial low-rent housing is unprofitable to build, the supply has been shrinking for many years. He contends that Reagan's construction cuts make shortages worse.

From 800,000 to 1 million people who would have been eligible for food stamps under pre-Reagan rules are now ineligible.

The Center for Budget and Policy Priorities has calculated that appropriations for programs aimed at low-income people other than housing were 29 percent lower in 1988 than they would have been if those programs had been maintained at 1981 levels, after accounting for inflation.

The impact of Reagan's changes on people's lives is in dispute.

Robert Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said, "The policies pursued under the Reagan administration have materially weakened the safety net." AFL-CIO unemployment insurance specialist James Ellenberger said, "Millions of people have lost unemployment benefits because of these changes."

But administration defenders say the safety net is basically unharmed, particularly when one looks at the recent improvements in Medicare and Medicaid, tax breaks for low-income workers and expansion of child-support collections from absent fathers.

"The safety net by bipartisan consensus is intact and I think more efficient than it was eight years ago," said Gary Bauer, former Reagan domestic policy adviser. "Every change the president proposed had as its purpose to direct revenues towards those most in need . . . . The AFDC {welfare} changes were designed to encourage more self-sufficiency and break the cycle of poverty and dependency."

The Heritage Foundation's Stuart Butler, focusing on welfare, said, "Yes, he {Reagan} has cut back the safety net a bit, but he has not emasculated it, but changed it. He's tried to make it a genuine safety net, not a featherbed, to restrict {welfare} to only the poor and remove eligibility for people who are not below the poverty line."

For some, the changes of the last eight years indisputably brought hardship. For example in 1981, Regan pushed through a reduction in the national Social Services grant appropriation. As a result, Richmond cut the number of elderly and disabled people receiving help at home with cooking, cleaning and other chores from 350 people to 65.

One elderly woman who lost aid, said Lory Osorio, director of an "adult day care" center, became so distressed after being forced out of her home and sent to a nursing home that she refused to eat and died within a year.

For others, losses were less severe. District resident Adrienne Taylor was getting $512 a month in welfare for herself and four children and collecting $350 a month in child-support payments from the father of her fifth child. Under the old law, the $350 was considered a source of support for the fifth child only, and welfare benefits were figured separately for the rest of the family.

But under a Reagan-requested 1984 law that became applicable to Taylor last year, the fifth child lost its special status -- it became just another member of her family. This raised her welfare payment by $65, but under the new law, the $350 child-support payment thereafter went not to her but to the District to compensate for the welfare it was paying Taylor. "My net income is $280 less," she said. Unable to find work, she was evicted and had to move in with a relative.

Beatrice Harris, a Chicago mother of six whose husband left her, went on welfare in the late 1960s but got a part-time job later. She was earning $260 a month and getting $380 a month in welfare from Illinois when, early in 1982, her welfare benefit was cut to $118 by a 1981 law cutting benefits for those with some earnings.

The aim of the 1981 change was to spur welfare clients to increase their work effort. But Harris said, "I was already trying to get a full-time job" and could not find one, so the only effect of the new law was to reduce her income drastically for almost three years, until, finding full-time work, she left welfare. "I was really hurting. It was hard for me to live. You can just get broke the first day and never catch up the whole month," she said.

A General Accounting Office study of the 1981 changes in the AFDC welfare program suggests that they did not push people into more productive work, but simply pushed people off the rolls, so their incomes went down. In Boston, Milwaukee and Syracuse, the GAO found 30 percent to 44 percent of those forced off the rolls in 1981-82 were below the poverty line two years later, and in Dallas and Memphis, 80 to 90 percent were below.

There are indeed "a lot of unfortunate people affected by Reagan-era policy changes," said Richard P. Nathan, professor at the Woodrow Wilson School, Princeton University, and a former high-level Nixon administration official.

"But to give balance, you should also cite stories of people on welfare who've gone to work because more money is being spent" on certain types of training and placement programs stimulated by the Reagan administration to get people off welfare.

For example, New Jersey in 1987 set up REACH, a welfare job-training program -- in part, state officials said, because of strong encouragement from White House welfare theorist Charles Hobbs. The government allowed the state to use federal money for part of the costs.

"I had no skills," said Kimberly Brest, a 19-year-old Trenton unmarried mother of an 18-month-old son who had been getting $322 a month cash welfare plus $122 food stamps and Medicaid benefits. But with the state providing child care, she got secretarial training through the new program and was able to find a job that now pays $14,000 a year. Off welfare, she still gets day-care help care and will continue to get medical coverage for a full year.

Nathan said the program shows how "the states have picked up some of the slack . . . . Reagan said the states should do more and they did. From 1983-86, state spending in real terms rose by 5-6 percent."

In some cases Reagan-era changes clearly worked to specific individuals' disadvantage, but the ultimate fairness of that impact is debatable. A case in point is Belda Leitner, who worked at a Western Union message center in Portland, Ore., for more than 30 years, and earned more than $400 a week in 1985, when the center closed.

Unable to find a new job, she collected about $210 a week in regular state unemployment insurance benefits for the standard 26 weeks. Under previous law, she would have qualified for up to 13 added weeks of benefits under the federal-state "extended unemployment insurance benefits" program. But by 1986, when she could have used the extra benefits, they were no longer available.

Leitner, then 56, spent a summer of anxiety, cutting back at home, she said. Her husband, a janitor, was bringing home $800 a month. She got a $615 pension from Western Union, but it was not enough.

She feared she would have to remove her daughter from Portland Christian High School, which costs $2,200 a year, where she had sent her because "we are Christians, it's a better school and we wanted to keep her away from the drug scene" at the public high school. She eventually did get a job, but with take-home pay of only $400 a month.

Greenstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, argued that changes in the safety net are partly responsible for the persistence of a high poverty rate despite five years of recovery from the recession of the early 1980s.

The Congressional Budget Office, in calculations for the House Ways and Means Committee, found that the share of people falling below the poverty line was 9.9 percent in 1979, 13.2 percent in 1981 and 12.6 percent in 1987, a year comparable to 1979 in business prosperity. These figures are based on cash income, the value of food and housing benefits and the impact of tax changes, but not medical benefits and service programs. The CBO poverty rate for children was 10.5 percent in 1979, 15.2 in 1981 and 15.1 in 1987.

The CBO also estimated that in 1979, 47 percent of those who would have been poor without any government assistance were removed from poverty by the combined effects of government cash, food and housing benefits and tax policies; in 1980, 43.7 percent were lifted above the poverty line by those programs, but in 1987, only 38.7 percent.

These numbers suggest that the major cash, food and housing progams plus tax changes are having less impact in relieving poverty than before Reagan took office. Some administration spokesmen dispute these figures.

Sawhill of the Urban Institute said that while the administration has stressed ending welfare dependency, "their deepest cuts so far have been in the programs such as education, training, nutrition and social services that are designed to move people into the mainstream . . . . We are going to pay the price later for failing to invest in our most disadvantaged children now."

"It's not just a matter of whether you damaged the safety net; if there's more of a need, you should have been strengthening it," said James Mongan, executive dirctor of Truman Medical Center, the public hospital system for Kansas City, Mo., which has had a 33 percent increase in indigent admissions since 1981.

Throughout the Reagan administration, the safety net dispute has focused on arguments about just who is capable of helping themselves.

For Xeno Graey, 36, of Montague in northern California, these arguments are not theoretical. Paralyzed on one side from an aneurysm, she lives on $580 a month in Social Security disability and California welfare payments, putting her over the poverty line. She gets medical benefits but no food stamps. Thus, the safety net provides basic assistance to sustain her life, but her rent, special car and heavy utility bills leave only $40 a month for food.

The Great Northern Corp., which gets funds under a federal program to help low-income people pay fuel bills, wants to allot Graey $600 this winter. But Clara Halpin of Great Northern said Graey may get less than that, or nothing. The federal program was cut this year at Reagan's request.

Graey said she hopes that if she does not get aid for fuel, Halpin can at least leave her some bags of food.