The Maryland House of Delegates, following the lead of the Reagan administration, today approved a controversial "workfare" measure that could require adult welfare recipients to take jobs in the public or private sector or risk losing welfare grants.

The bill passed by a vote of 78-53, despite opposition from labor and welfare advocacy groups and after acrimonious debate in which some liberal legislators charged that "workfare" is doomed to fail because of inadequate funds for employment training and an already severe shortage of jobs. The legislation now goes to the state Senate, where its fate is uncertain.

Today's vote came just one day after the state Employment Security Administration released statistics showing a statewide unemployment rate of 9.7 percent in January, reportedly the highest rate since before World War II. In Baltimore, home of 60 percent of the state's 220,000 welfare recipients, unemployment now stands at 12.7 percent.

The debate that preceded today's vote underscored the conflicting philosophies of legislators and officials who are trying to respond to the pinch of federal budget cuts and to President Reagan's proposal for a "swap" of state Medicaid and federal welfare programs.

While he was governor of California, Reagan launched an unsuccessful workfare program that the legislature there has since repealed. But he has retained the workfare ideal as part of his political credo, and as president has pushed for federal legislation that would require welfare recipients to work for their benefits.

Some 18 other states now are considering workfare legislation modeled on the federal proposal. Legislators here who support the concept have echoed Reagan in arguing that the program is essential to lessen the steady increase in the number of welfare recipients in recent years.

The bill's sponsors here have tried to win support of House liberals by warning that a federal workfare measure, once passed, could prove more stringent and punitive than the state proposal. These workfare proponents also have cautioned that the state may risk losing future federal welfare money if it fails to incorporate a workfare law into the books.

If approved by the Senate, the legislation would give authority to the state Department of Human Resources to place adult welfare recipients, including mothers with small children, in jobs in state agencies or private businesses, initially as a pilot program in four jurisdictions.

Opponents of the bill charge that workfare can not succeed without additional state funding, guaranteed day care services, medical services, transporation expenses, guaranteed wages for participants comparable to other employes, and financial bonuses for those who perform well. They also object to the "mandatory" provision in the bill. An amendment to make the program voluntary was killed on the House floor.

To demonstrate the problems of ill-funded and ill-conceived workfare experiments, critics cited the failure of the program in California, and similar ones in Utah and Massachussetts, neither of which achieved the participation levels that sponsors had promised. In Utah, only 4 percent of eligible adults on welfare have been placed in jobs.

"Why is Maryland ready to embark on a program that is a known failure?" Del. Walter Dean (D-Baltimore) asked his colleagues during a testy debate on the House floor.

"The question is not the principle of the bill," said Del. Nancy Kopp (D-Montgomery), chairman of a House Appropriations subcommittee, in arguing against the measure. "Most everybody agrees with the principle that all able-bodied adults should work. The question here is this particular bill. It is not clear at all in this budget where the money is going to come from."

Supporters of the measure insist that no additional state money is required for the program because it would be funded with money already in the welfare budget. They argue that as welfare recipients leave the welfare rolls to take jobs, more grant money would become available to expand the workfare program.

"It's a litle bit of a hoax to suggest this bill will get people off welfare," said Del. Theodore Levin (D-Baltimore County), who was a social worker in the 1960s. "It might work if unemployment wasn't at 9 percent."

An original version of the workfare bill, sponsored by House Minority Leader Raymond E. Beck (R-Carroll), was amended before today's vote to permit the state agency to offer day care and prevailing wages.

Even the name was changed--from "Workfare" to "Work Experience Demonstration Program"--to weaken its association with mandatory work programs that have failed in other states.