The word from the White House is that President Reagan has reformed the nation's welfare programs -- turned them back to the states and stripped away waste and abuse without inflicting pain on the truly needy.

"If there are individuals who suffer from our economic program," he said earlier this year, "they are people who've been dropped from various things like food stamps because they weren't morally eligible for them . . . . We have tried to redirect the effort toward the people with the greatest need."

The word from Ohio is less cheerful.

Welfare rolls are up, including those for Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), which is the largest state-federal welfare program that pays cash and a lifeline to one of every five people in this city, including half the children in Cleveland's public schools.

And the purchasing power of the median welfare check is down. AFDC benefits have declined 9.3 percent in the last four years, despite the president's pledge that benefit cuts for the less needy would raise payments to the poor and despite Ohio's persistent efforts to take up the slack.

The same is true nationally: The after-inflation value of the median welfare check has fallen 37 percent in the last 15 years and 8.7 percent in the last four.

The deterioration in benefits has occurred even as the percentage of female-headed households in the population, the main group served by AFDC, has increased. In 1970, one of every 10 families with children under 18 was headed by a woman with no man in the house. By 1983, it was one in six.

"We have really reached the point of bipartisan neglect of the [welfare] issue," said Athens County Human Services Director Jack Frech, a spokesman for "Have a Heart Ohio," a pro-welfare coalition. "Reagan lays the line out that state and local governments will do what's right. But it seems like there is no political scenario at this point in which anyone can foresee that it will be politically acceptable to raise welfare grant levels ."

Gov. Richard F. Celeste (D) said his state and others have become victims of a federal "shell game" that, in the guise of states' rights and federalism, transferred "responsibility without resources."

Between 1981 and 1984, as recession gripped the state, the number of people on AFDC and General Relief, the state- and county-sponsored program for the destitute, rose 32 percent. Ohio's welfare costs climbed 48 percent, and the proportion of that bill paid by state funds grew from 55 percent in 1981 to 64 percent last year.

"What you see here is a shift," said Mark Real, director of the Children's Defense Fund office in Columbus. "The federal government has abandoned its responsibility and is walking away and sticking it to the states and the county governments."

Added Celeste, "It's one thing to say, 'Don't dictate [social policy from Washington].' It's another thing to say, 'Don't pay.' If I could keep 100 percent of the federal income tax dollars paid by Ohioans, then you could start talking to me about taking all the programs back."

Welfare advocates complain that even though poverty and welfare have spread to the suburbs, both remain politically unpopular, pinched on one side by bipartisan calls for tax cuts and more spending on jobs and education, and on the other by competition from such social concerns as day care and child abuse.

In some respects, Ohio's increased caseload is an exception. Nationally, 11.2 million people were on AFDC in 1981 compared with 10.9 million three years later, a decrease of about 3 percent. In Ohio, the number of AFDC recipients rose 18 percent during that period, from 573,012 to 677,023.

Ohio, like more than two-thirds of the states, tried to play catchup. Celeste ushered back-to-back increases for 1984 and 1985 through the legislature. Prospects for 1986 and 1987 appeared even brighter, with an anticipated $522 million budget surplus to begin fiscal 1986 on July 1.

Republicans took control of the state Senate in last fall's elections, however, and began warning against increased welfare spending while goading Celeste, who is up for reelection in 1986, to cut taxes. Celeste not only proposed a 10 percent tax cut but called for welfare increases of only 4 percent for each of the next two years. A House panel has recommended 7 percent boosts.

If the federal government caps Medicaid spending and freezes AFDC administrative costs, and the state Senate prevails in its plan to cut taxes 30 percent, Celeste aides said, welfare grants may not be increased at all.

Jo Anne Ross, associate commissioner of Social Security in charge of family assistance at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, credited the administration's policies with reducing inflation, which she said hurt the poor disproportionately. Reagan's policies also improved many states' fiscal health, thereby allowing them to raise welfare grant levels nominally. "Grants have not been reduced at all," she said.

The welfare changes pushed by Reagan and passed by Congress in 1981 and 1982 increased federal controls by narrowing the circumstances under which benefits must be paid. States that wanted to maintain broader benefits had to pay their entire cost, and some did. Others, with municipal budgets pinched by taxpayer rebellions and an impending recession, swallowed the cuts whole.

AFDC was limited to those without jobs. Many "working poor" became ineligible, as did AFDC-household members deemed capable of working.

In Ohio's 88 counties, welfare offices scrambled to purge the rolls and cut spending accordingly. "The feds put us under so much pressure to show welfare savings," said Rose Anne Benson, chief of the public assistance division of the Ohio Department of Human Services.

Seven months after the Reagan regulations took effect, Ohio pinpointed $26.3 million in cost reductions, and the state's 1982 average monthly AFDC roster was 2 percent smaller than in 1981. The next year, however, AFDC began a steady ascent that did not stop until mid-1984.

Some of those booted off the AFDC roster by the new regulations wound up on General Relief. Among them was Mabel Whatley, 53, president of the Greater Cleveland Welfare Rights Organization.

The new AFDC provisions decreed that Whatley would become ineligible for AFDC last June when her youngest child had turned 18 and graduated from high school. Under the old guidelines, he could have been eligible until he was 21, with the federal government paying half the bill. Under the new guidelines, Ohio would have had to pay the entire amount; it chose not to do so.

As an AFDC mother, Whatley received $227 a month cash and $154 in food stamps. Now she receives $73 a month in General Relief, the same as her son, who has been unable to find work. Together, they receive $206 a month in food stamps. Rent is $200 a month for her 4-bedroom frame house in the Hough section on the city's East Side.

"I had to go out and get another child to come back and live with me so the three of us could get together and pay this rent and utilities," Whatley said. "It's taking your whole grant just to pay rent if you've got the slightest decent place." The other son is also unemployed and on General Relief. The household's combined monthly income is $219.

Ohio's rolls for General Relief, supported entirely by state and county revenues, swelled 164 percent between 1981 and 1984. The federal government pays 56 cents of every $1 of Ohio AFDC costs.

For those who remained on AFDC after the changes, skyrocketing utility and rent costs cut deeply into their cash grants. Celeste's 5 percent increase in 1984 was the first since 1978. Between 1980 and 1984, average Ohio utility bills rose more than 50 percent.

The Reagan administration and the state increased funds for programs that help pay utility bills for the poor. However, Reagan made sharp cuts in the federal subsidized housing program and further reduced prospects for the more than half of Ohio welfare recipients who do not live in subsidized housing where rents are limited to less than 30 percent of the household income.

In an effort to prune AFDC rolls, the 1981 guidelines sharply restricted outside earnings: An AFDC recipient could receive partial payments and Medicaid for four months after taking a job where the net income, after deductions, exceeded the full AFDC grant.

In 1984, Congress effectively extended the period to as much as 12 months for AFDC and Medicaid and as many as 15 more months for Medicaid alone. But Ohio and other states had much longer periods in effect before the 1981 changes. Ohio welfare workers and recipients say the net effect has been the creation of a new disincentive to work if taking the job means losing Medicaid benefits.

An Ohio AFDC recipient with three dependents who takes a part-time, minimum-wage job paying $114 a week gross now can lose all AFDC and Medicaid benefits after four months if he or she receives a 20-cent-an-hour merit raise, according to Elaine Galgany of the Cuyahoga County Department of Human Services. Few part-time, minimum-wage jobs offer medical insurance.

"I figured it out once," said Dorothy Charging Hawk, 37, a mother of one and a Cleveland welfare activist who said she has been on AFDC two years. "The people who really scream 'cause they're in that upper tax bracket, if they work, half of their money goes back to the government. But if I work, they take everyting I make right off the top . . . . The poorest of the poor pay 100 percent taxes if they try to get off."

Charging Hawk said she also has considered reuniting with her unemployed husband, but that would kick her off AFDC and onto General Relief. She said she calculated the reunion cost in monthly payments -- "$76 to take your husband back" -- and decided to stay on AFDC.

Ohio's AFDC grant amounts ranked 31st in the nation in 1984. An Ohio family of four receives $360 a month cash. If the family earns $645 a month, the AFDC earned-income formula would deduct a maximum of $75 for work expenses, such as transportaton and taxes, $30 standard deduction and one-third of the remaining $540, or $180, Galgany said.

At that point, the earned outside income would equal the monthly AFDC grant. The family would be ineligible for AFDC and Medicaid in four months, though still able to receive $174 a month in food stamps.

A $645-a-month job pays about $4 an hour, $8,385 a year -- less than the $9,339 beginning salary of a GS1 federal worker. Including the value of the food stamps for 12 months, the overall income is $10,473, slightly less than the $10,610 official 1984 poverty level for a family of four.

"The fact of the matter is that roughly 16 percent of the full-time workers earn less than $10,000," said national AFDC administrator Ross, "and what we didn't want to do is create a [welfare] system where people had the option of remaining on welfare or working."

A major problem in Ohio is a shortage of jobs. The Ohio unemployment rate has floated 2 to 3 percentage points above the national average from 1981 to 1984. Last month it was down to 9.2 percent, 1.9 points above the national rate.

Cuyahoga is one of two Ohio counties with a pilot job training and placement program for welfare recipients similar to programs that have proven successful in other states. The program, "Ohio Works," is working. But it will provide only about 400 jobs for country residents -- less than one for every 100 adults on AFDC.

"It's not worth anything," said County Commission Chairman Timothy F. Hagan (D). "Come to Cleveland, where we have 50,000 skilled human beings in the county out of work, and then you tell me to get a women on welfare and get her a job."

Reagan's budget for next year proposes more changes similar to those instituted in 1981. One would require all able-bodied AFDC recipients to be in some kind of work program, while another would eliminate AFDC benefits for a parent once the youngest child reaches age 16. A third would declare ineligible for AFDC any minors who have children and do not live with their parents.

Patricia Barry, director of the Ohio Department of Human Services, estimated the mandatory work-involvement program would cost the state $56 million, while those eliminated from AFDC would go on to General Relief, allowing still another portion of the welfare bill to "trickle down to the state."