STRANDS of sparkling silver tinsel and colored lights drape over almost every needle of Jeff and Michele Cutler's Christmas tree. Underneath, a number of brightly wrapped packages - most bought in October for their two-year-old son Justin - are stacked next to each other.In their two-bedroom apartment in a residential section of Manchester, N. H., the Cutlers live comfortably. An attractive couch, chair, coffee table, TV set, and stereo fit snugly in the living room. A large gas heater fills up one corner. But appearances mask the family's current economic situation. In late November, Jeff, who does painting and construction work, was laid off for the third time this year. Michele, who was a full-time employee at a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet two years ago, says she is now unable to find any full-time or part-time jobs. "I'm out of money," Jeff says. "Every year I've always had work. The last two years we've really had to scrape." The Cutlers are one of a growing number of families stung by the lingering recession. Not discriminating between the lower or middle class or those in blue or white-collar professions, the recession is forcing people all across the United States to get help from a source they never had to consider tapping before: welfare agencies. Although the number of families seeking public assistance has increased in every state since July 1989, New Hampshire has the fastest growing number of AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) caseloads. According to the American Public Welfare Association in Washington, D. C., while the number of families receiving AFDC rose about 20 percent nationally from July 1989 to August 1991, New Hampshire saw a 79 percent increase. "We're swamped," says Peter Bradley, administrator for the Office of Economic Services at the New Hampshire Division of Human Services. "We are seeing a lot of people who have lost their jobs and are coming in and applying for assistance probably for the first time ever." Mr. Bradley says the jump in New Hampshire seems more staggering than it is partly because welfare caseloads were almost unnaturally low during the boom years of the mid-1980s. Since New England's economy took a dive in 1989, caseloads here in New Hampshire have been rapidly catching up to other states. He describes it as sort of a "market adjustment." Two weeks ago, the Cutlers visited the state welfare office in Manchester for the first time to apply for AFDC and food stamps. They will receive a monthly check along with the food stamps to help them until they find employment. Jeff says he has sent out more than 100 resumes to different employers. He has received replies telling him that there were no jobs available but that his resume would be put on file. He says he had to swallow his pride to apply for public assistance: "There's nothing more demeaning than standing in a food-stamp line. Some people live off of it all their lives. I just need it for now." Michele is eager to work, but she says her job prospects are just as dim as Jeff's. A high school graduate, she says she is unable to find any jobs in positions that don't require a college education or experience. "It's pretty bad when you look in a big paper and one-half page is want ads," she says. George Tetler, director of operations at the New Hampshire division of employment security, says the state's job situation is bleak - particularly for entry-level positions. Many unemployed people have taken jobs in fast-food restaurants or as store clerks even though they are qualified to work in higher-level positions. "What makes it all the harder here in New Hampshire is that up until 2 1/2 years ago we had the lowest unemployment rate in the country for a period of about five years. We were down as low as 2 [percent] to 2.5 percent unemployment," Mr. Tetler says. New Hampshire unemployment in October - the most recent statistics available - was 6.6 percent; nationally, it is now about 6.8 percent. The state has also seen a number of companies leave the state and has lost about 10 percent of its jobs since 1989. Economists at a New England economic outlook conference early this month predicted that the New England states, which have been the hardest hit by unemployment, bank failures, a weak real estate market, and state budget crises, would begin a slow climb out of the recession in 1992 if the national economy soon rebounds. For the Cutlers, the situation is frustrating. Both blame state politicians for not taking steps to bolster New Hampshire's economy and President Bush for not doing enough on the national level. As of now, they say, they do not plan to vote for Mr. Bush next November. "The election is coming around. After what's been happening, are we going to trust [the politicians in office?]" Michele asks scornfully. Jeff is optimistic he will secure a six- or seven-week job with his old employer after Christmas. Until then the family will continue to cut corners and live frugally. "When bad times come you learn to do without certain things," Jeff says. "As long as Justin's got a warm home and has food in his mouth, then I'm happy."