Nearly 20 witnesses, including ministers, welfare recipients and social workers, testified yesterday before a D.C. City Council committee, all supporting a bill that would provide automatic annual cost-of-living increases for public assistance recipients.

In an unusual move, the city's executive branch took no position on the bill at the hearing. "We chose not to testify today but we intend to submit a position," said Charles Seigel, spokesman for the Department of Human Services. "We are still studying the proposal to determine our position."

But the bill's sponsor, John Wilson (D-Ward 2), said, "I don't think the executive branch wants to openly oppose me on this. I think they would be happy if I got it done and they could take the credit for it."

Under the bill the payment levels for Aid to Families with Dependent Children and General Public Assistance programs would be tied to the increase in the Consumer Price Index for Urban Consumers.

"Between 1969 and 1985 the CPI increased 196 percent," Anne Wicks, a research analyst with the National Social Science and Law Project, told the council's Committee on Human Services. "During the same period, the District of Columbia's AFDC payments for a four-person family increased 92 percent -- from $2,496 to $4,788 a year . . . a decrease of 35 percent in purchasing power.

"Had D.C. adjusted assistance payments since 1969 to keep pace with inflation, the 1985 payment level would be $7,392 annually," she said. "This would still be only 69 percent of the federal poverty level."

Nationwide the District ranks 26th in assistance to a family of three, paying a maximum of $3,924 a year, Wicks said.

Several witnesses cited the shortage of public housing and the high cost of unsubsidized housing in the District as major reasons for raising the welfare levels.

"Most people living on AFDC or GPA have not been able to get public housing apartments in D.C.," said Edith Winstead, testifying for the Coalition on Financial Accountability, a grass-roots organization that monitors city spending for human services. "Of almost 29,000 households receiving AFDC or GPA, only 7,804 lived in public housing last year." Winstead noted that foster parents receive "more money for care of a child than the natural parents."

AFDC recipient Annie Dupee gave the committee a vivid view of life on a welfare budget. "My five children and I live in a two-bedroom apartment . . . . I receive a $460 AFDC check for myself and four children. My oldest son recently started getting a Social Security Insurance check because he is 18 years old and disabled.

"My household expenses include $358 rent, $70 for household goods like soap . . . . Our food stamps were cut from $276 to $170 when my oldest son got SSI, so we must now pay at least $100 cash for groceries.

"On public assistance, you can just barely breathe," she said. "You cannot reach out to help your children, and if you leave your children crippled they will never be able to help you."