Tax-deferred Individual Retirement Accounts have had great appeal to upper-income Americans, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

Households earning over $50,000 annually were much more likely to have opened an IRA retirement savings plan last year, the first taxable year in which they were open to all workers. Those families also made larger contributions to their IRAs.

The IRA saver tends to be middle-aged, white, and to live in the suburbs. Families affected by unemployment or pay cutbacks last year were as likely as others to be IRA savers, but they put sharply less into them.

IRAs were less popular than average in rural areas and in the South in nearly all income categories.

In all, 17 percent nationwide said they or another household member contributed to an IRA last year. Another 5 percent said no one in their household had opened IRAs yet, but expected to put money into an IRA for 1982 before the April 15 deadline.

Among households putting money into IRAs last year, 57 percent interviewed in the Post-ABC News poll said their contributions equaled the maximum amount. Workers may contribute a maximum of $2,000 to an IRA, or up to $2,250 for those with a nonworking spouse.

Assets in IRA and Keogh accounts for the self-employed more than doubled in 1982, increasing to an estimated $56.2 billion by December, according to a study by the Employee Benefit Research Institute, a public policy research group. Most of that increase--about $30 billion--can be credited to IRA growth, according to EBRI researcher David A. Peckman.

The percentage of households contributing the maximum amount to IRAs for 1982 may rise by the April deadline. One in three families eligible to put more money into existing IRA accounts intend to do so, the poll found.

The Post-ABC News poll, in which 1,504 Americans were interviewed from Feb. 25 to March 2, also determined the following::

Nearly 6 in 10 households with annual incomes over $50,000 put money into an IRA, compared to one in four households earning $30,000 to $40,000, and 1 in 25 among those making less than $12,000. Close to 8 in 10 upper-income families contributed the maximum amount, with only 3 in 10 of households with modest incomes contributing the maximum.

In the suburbs, 24 percent of households made IRA contributions, followed by 18 percent in large cities, 15 percent in small towns and 11 percent in rural areas.

In the West, 22 percent of households deposited money to IRAs last year. IRAs were opened by 19 percent in the East; 18 percent in the Midwest, and 13 percent in the South.

The poll also suggested that IRAs will continue to retain their appeal this year.

Question: "What are the chances your household will put money in an IRA for the year 1983? People have until April 1984 to do that. Do you think your household is certain to put money in an IRA for 1983; will probably do so; are the chances about 50-50, or do you think your household probably won't put money in an IRA for 1983?"

One in ten citizens said their household was certain to contribute to 1983 IRAs for 1983; 9 percent said they would probably do so, and 17 percent said the chances were 50-50. Intentions to put money in IRAs for 1983 were strongest among upper-income people and those who had contributed the maximum last year.