In Georgia, no welfare recipient can own a car less than four years old. In the District of Columbia, the rule is no car worth more than $1,500. In Arkansas, it is no jalopy worth more than $300.

Now comes Jimmy Carter's welfare "reform" proposal - scheduled to go to Congress next month - and a question; how much uniformly does Carter plan to impose on national welfare eligibility standards?

No one knows right now. "That's several issues down the road," said one welfare reform expert in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare.

The question of cars may seem an oblique aside to a general discussion of welfare, but cars are a good illustration of a problem Carter's weary welfare overhaulers face - and point up the fact that the "welfare mess" may not be as easy to simplify as campaign and reformist rhetoric sometimes suggests.

Welfare architects like to talk in general and strategic terms about such things as work incentives, improving equity by broadening coverage and shifting more of the welfare costs from states to the federal level. Beneath such generalities, a lot of welfare's nitty-gritty problems remain.

Take assets for example. By law, each state devises and subjects welfare applicants to two means tests.

The first and more familiar has to do with income. For instance, a family of two with an income of more than $115 per month in Texas probably would not be eligible - while in New York a family of two can have a $309 monthly income and be eligible.

Then comes the second test. How much can an applicants own in the way of cars, homes, insurance, cash, livestock, tools, even burial plots, and still be eligible?

Assets tests are, in general, less important than income tests, since most welfare applicants have few assets but they can still be crucial to applicants. Many have some life insurance, which, depending on the state's rule, could render them ineligible. And a divorced woman with two children for example, may have a home or car worth more than a state allows and be in eligible, even though she has no income. She would then have to sell same of her resources to be eligible. And a small farmer without income for much of the year could be ineligible if he had farm acreage larger than the state allows.

Assets tests can be complicated, and are often punitive and designed to cut costs by weeding out all but the poorest, with each state forming its separate crazy quilt of rules.

"I once tried to figure out how North Carolina set its eligibility requirements. They thought of every way to cut you off, including at one time, if you owned a TV set," said Elizabeth Chief, programs characteristics specialist in HEW's assistance Payments Administration.

In Colorado, an "irrevocable" prepaid burial up to $500 is permissible and you can own one cow, 10 sheep and a six-month supply of feed - but no more.

One trend in welfare eligibility is that the states are becoming more uniform in one area - doing away with a maximum value on a home. Thirty-eight states now specify no maximum value, providing the home is used as the family's residence. However, in Alabama, a person with more than $2,500 equity in a home cannot quality for aid. At the other end of the scale, in Hawaii, where the cost of living is estimated as four times higher than in the rest of the United States, the tax appraised value cannot exceed $25,000.

The amount of life insurance a family can own runs from $500 cash value in Minnesota to $1,500 cash value per person in Delaware.

Many in HEW see the feasibility of a basic, nationally set floor on the amount of assets a recipient may have - with some leeways for such differences as individual state property laws.

The way it is now, for example, in Delaware and New Jersey, if you have enough cash for food and to run your home for just one month, you're not eligible. You practically have to be down to your last penny, and that's unrealistic," said Catherine Miller, chief of the state plan and program characteristics branch of HEW's Assistance payments Administration.

All of the state requirements are currently tougher than the outer limits of the federal eligibility regulations for Aid to Families with Dependent Children - the government's basic welfare program. Federal rules allow recipients to own a home without regard to value, personal effects, a car and income-producing property such as land, and tools. In addition, each recipient can have property, real or personal, up to $2,000.

It is estimated that $10.3 billion will be spent on 11.4 billion AFDC recipents this fiscal year - some 8 million of whom are children. The basic qualifying definition is 'deprivation' rather than need.

A child must be deprived of parental support and care through death or constant or physical and mental incapacity of the parents. Twenty-nine states recognize a father's unemployment as a deprivation, but the rest do not, regardless of need.

""There is a lot of ambiguity on what is correct 'social policy' on who can qualify," said one HEW official. "A car, for example, may be a vital necessity to a poor rural family, but a lot of people aren't willing to see it that way. That's one reasons why some of these regulations are so harsh."