For the past week, my kitchen table has been covered with checks, receipts, bank and insurance statements, bills and various other testaments to the income and outgo that occurred in my house last year. The purpose of this exercise is, of course, none other than my annual attempt to at least break even with the Internal Revenue Service so I don't have to offer one or more of my children as partial payment of back taxes.

My problems, along with those of most middle-income Americans, would be significantly reduced by investments in tax shelters. But, unfortunately, the cash flow last year was largely consumed by such things as food, shelter, college education and child care, so there wasn't any money left over for exotic schemes or tax experts who could tell me how to shelter my income legally.

It is always dicey to compare individuals and corporations in economic matters, but a little less so in matters of spirit, and the comparison hit home last weekend when I read a story in the paper about the tax burden on a number of corporations. This was not the first time I'd seen the figures -- the report from the Citizens for Tax Justice has been sitting on my desk since it came out in October -- but at the time it seemed merely annoying. April, however, invites invidious comparisons, and the contents of the report now seem simply outrageous.

"Why is it that the federal government is racking up record-breaking budget deficits while most Americans believe -- and rightly so -- that they are paying more in taxes than ever?" asks the report.". . . One answer can be found in the demise of the corporate income tax. Once, back in the 1950s and 1960s, the corporate income tax supplied one-fourth of all federal government revenues. By 1983, that figure had dropped to 6.2 percent.

"The decline of the corporate tax began with the adoption of the investment tax credit in the 1960s and continued into the '70s as Congress adopted one new loophole after another in response to corporate lobbyists.

"However, the largest single blow to the corporate tax came in 1981 with passage of the Reagan tax bill. That bill created a new system of super-accelerated write-offs for business investments in plant and equipment, the Accelerated Cost Recovery System ACRS , which opened up massive new possibilities for legalized corporate tax avoidance, even after the reforms adopted in 1982 scaling back some of its benefits."

Citizens for Tax Justice studied 250 companies between 1981 and 1983 and found that 128 paid no federal taxes in at least one of those three tax years while they earned profits of $56.7 billion.

This, folks, is knowing how to beat the system.

There's more: 17 of the companies paid nothing in taxes all three years. Instead, they received rebates of taxes paid in previous years or sold "excess" tax benefits, so that they actually received $1.2 billion while earning $14.9 billion in profits. The biggest winner, according to the CTJ study, was General Electric, which earned $6.5 billion in pretax profits during those years and claimed $283 million in tax refunds from previous years. Other big winners included top defense contractors such as Boeing, General Dynamics, Lockheed and Grumman, all of which made hundreds of millions in profits and either paid no taxes or received hundreds of millions in refunds or benefits. Another 48 corporations paid nothing in two of the three years and got rebates and benefits totaling $2.9 billion on profits of $19.5 billion.

The CTJ study further found that 130 companies paid a smaller margin of their profits in taxes than the average American family: 0.3 percent, versus 12 percent.

A recent Washington Post-ABC poll showed that 72 percent of the respondents think the present tax system benefits the rich and is unfair to ordinary working people, and 52 percent said they thought most people who have the chance cheat somewhat on their taxes. At the same time, however, 72 percent of the respondents showed disapproval of people underpaying their taxes.

That tax-paying ethic has been the backbone of a fair and successful tax system, but it risks swift erosion if the system continues to tax at such inequitable rates corporations, the wealthy who can afford tax shelters and the poor and middle-class who cannot. The spirit of doing your fair share cannot survive, let alone flourish, under a system that billed the average taxpayer $3,536 in 1983 while dozens of corporations making billions in profits paid nothing. You don't have to be a tax expert to know that what's legal, ain't necessarily right.