Welfare benefits in the District of Columbia, often viewed in years past as inordinately high, are now below the national average and well below those of every major industrial state except Ohio.

Benefits here, frozen since July 1979, are limited to $285.65 a month for a family of three, compared to $473 in California and $425 in Michigan. No increase is scheduled until next October, when Mayor Marion Berry proposes to raise the payments by 5 percent.

Meanwhile, the cost of living has been rising steadily, so the gap between the basic estimated minimum amount a family of three needs to live here and the biggest welfare payment that family can actually receive has risen to $109 a month. Only Louisiana, Mississippi and Maine have greater disparities.

Those figures were among the statistics presented recently to a City Council committee by community and volunteer groups who charged that Barry's proposed austerity budget for the 1982 fiscal year hits hardest at the poor, the sick and the elderly.

Food stamp service, ambulatory health care, mental health clinics, aid to the disabled and home care for the elderly have already been crippled by staff cuts and fund reductions, the witnesses said, and will be further hampered if the Department of Human Services [DHS] budget is approved as proposed by Barry.

Barry, struggling to balance his budget and pay off a $409-million city deficit, has said that his administration will have to emphasize the delivery of such indispensable services as water, police and fire protection and education and cut back on other areas of city spending. It is becoming clear that services to the poor are going to be prominent casualties of that policy, even though Barry himself, numerous members of his staff and several city council members first became active in politics as advocates of expanded government assistance for the urban poor.

James A. Buford, DHS' director, said that the proposed 1982 spending levels, while "stringent," were also "compassionate" and "will continue to improve the quality of life for the population we serve." He did not comment directly on the testimony of the community groups, but members of his staff did not dispute the accuracy of the testimony about specific cutbacks.

The council's Committee on Human Services, chaired by Polly Shackleton (D-Ward 3), heard Janet Macklin, a lawyer from Neighborhood Legal Services, testify that welfare payments here "lag far behind the payments made by other states with large urban populations." The District, she said, "is no longer among those jurisdictions which pay a reasonable proportion of what a person or family needs to live on."

She submitted figures compiled by the Center on Social Welfare Policy showing that California, New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan and New Jersey all have higher monthly benefit limits than the District in the basic category of Aid to Families with Dependent Children. So do 17 other states, including Nebraska, South Dakota and Utah, states often described as politically conservative. Even Virginia, which has traditionally shortchanged welfare and emphasized the work ethic, has a higher theoretical maximum.

For a mother who has two children and no income, the highest possible monthly AFDC payment in the District is now $285.65, excluding any food stamp or Medicare benefits. In California, it is $473, in Michigan it is $425, in New York it is $394, in Utah it is $351 and in Ohio, $263. The Virginia limit is $288; in Maryland it is $243. The lowest is Mississippi, $96.

Few people actually receive the highest possible benefit because payments are adjusted if there is other income, if families receive food stamps or when rent scales vary. But figures complied this summer by the Social Security Administration show that the average actual dollar payment to a three-member AFDC family here is $259.37, against a national average of $272.38.

Each state calculates a "needs standard," which theoretically represents the amount needed to meet the minimal standard of living there. Welfare benefits may, but need not necessarily, be paid up to that limit. Some states have kept the same "needs standard" since 1969; the District, however, has raised the standard in step with the rising cost of living.

The current D.C. standard for an AFDC family of three is $394 a month -- about $109 a month more than the greatest possible payment. Five years ago there was no gap between the two numbers -- the payment equaled the "needs standard." But in the ensuing years, according to DHS officials, the city has simply lacked the funds to keep the benefits rising at the same rate as the needs standard.

The city budget for the current fiscal year, which began Oct. 1, contained no funds for any general welfare increase. The budget for next year, which is now before the council, includes the $4.7 million for a 5 percent raise. About 37,000 families receive some welfare payments. Half the money is paid by the city, half by the federal government.