The Washington area's economic downturn has dramatically increased the number of households on welfare in the Virginia and Maryland suburbs, social service officials say.

In virtually all areas of the region, the number of households on food stamps was up by double-digit percentages in July compared to a year ago. About 40 percent more sought food stamps in Prince George's County, and the number was up 30 percent in Alexandria.

"The people we deal with are low-to-moderate income and tend to have fewer options than, say, the middle class," said Gary Cyphers, Alexandria's director of human services. "Fluctuations in the economy impact these people quicker and more dramatically."

The number of families receiving Aid to Dependent Children payments also is up in many suburban areas. In both Arlington and Montgomery counties, the number on such aid rose 14 percent, and the number increased by 34 percent in Prince William County compared to a year ago.

The increases were smaller in the District, where households on food stamps were up 9 percent and the number on aid to children rose 5 percent.

While the growing number of households that need government help to live is affected by a number of factors -- including problems related to drug abuse -- a weakening local economy is playing a key role in the increases, officials said.

In recent months, defense contractors, banks, real estate firms and retailers have laid off hundreds of employees. Many other companies are not filling vacancies.

While the region's July unemployment figure of 3.2 percent was far better than the national rate of 5.5 percent, the Washington-area rate is nearly one point higher than it was in December, meaning about 20,000 more area residents are out of jobs.

Layoffs often pinch first in fields where low- and moderate-income people work, social service workers say. For example, when the economy turns downward, developers often halt projects, putting construction workers out of jobs, Cyphers said.

The retail industry also is among the first to be affected by economic troubles, and the loss of such jobs quickly sends people looking for help, officials say.

"We are among the first agencies to see the results of any tangible shifts in the economy," said James Butts, a senior administrator for the District Department of Human Services. "We are seeing increases {in people seeking welfare} across the board. We have seen a general downturn in the economy."

Edmond Bouton, budget analyst for the Montgomery Social Services Department, said his office began noticing increases in the number of people seeking welfare benefits in March, and the upward trend has continued since then. He too blames the softer economy.

In July, the department provided food stamps to 6,296 households, nearly 1,000 more than the 5,387 served in July 1989, he said.

"These numbers are startling," said Bouton. "This is as about as great an increase as I have ever seen in such a short period of time, and I have been working in this business 19 years."

After an eight-year decline, the number of people applying for welfare in Alexandria recently began increasing significantly, Cyphers said.

Food stamp applications averaged 712 a month in budget year 1990, which ended on June 30, a 16 percent increase over budget year 1989. During the same time, the average monthly number of households receiving Aid to Dependent Children assistance jumped by 26 percent.

"For us, it has been {fueled by} both a slowdown in the economy, which is undeniable, and other issues like the lack of affordable housing, drug addiction and teen pregnancy," Cyphers said.

A survey of 1,184 welfare recipients conducted by the Maryland Department of Human Resources and the University of Baltimore this year did not provide conclusive explanations for the dramatic increases in people requiring Aid to Families with Dependent Children payments.

However, the study, which was conducted in Prince George's, Montgomery and Baltimore counties, offered findings that suggested an economic slowdown may be a contributing factor.

"A much higher percentage of new applicants report loss of job, compared to the current recipients," said a letter sent by the Human Services Department to Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer.

Statewide in Maryland, the number of households on AFDC was up 8 percent in May compared to a year ago, and the number on food stamps was up 6 percent.

Virginia social service officials also blame the economy for welfare increases. Statewide, the number of households on ADC was up 4 percent in March, compared to the same month last year. The number on food stamps was up 5 percent.

"Right now economics is the only thing we can attribute this to," said DeAnn Lineberry, spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Social Services. She added that the state is also examining other factors.

The increases could not have come at a worse time, say some regional officials, because the governments are not in a good position to meet increased welfare costs. A business slump usually means fewer tax dollars, leading to government budget constraints. In recent weeks, District, Maryland and Virginia residents all have been told that money for government programs is scarce.

George Carr, assistant director of the Anne Arundel County Department of Social Services, noted, "People might not be able to get service when they need it."