The Reagan administration steadfastly persists in its refusal to answer the basic question its policies raise: "What are poor people supposed to do while their survival programs are cut back and before the promised prosperity takes effect?"

Even if the Reagan program works--and it shows every sign of failing--it will take years before it results in sharply increased employment and a tolerable inflation rate.

In effect, the federal government is telling poor people to wait until happy days come back again. And until they do, it seems to be suggesting that other institutions should fill the gap between the little that poor people have and what they need to survive.

Prime among those institutions are state and local governments. The idea behind the misguided block grants is that local officials can choose to support the programs that benefit their communities.

A fine idea, but not for the real world of limited resources, political domination of local governments by those least interested in the plight of the poor and forced competition among worthy causes for diminishing dollars.

Experience demonstrates that few state and local governments will continue key programs at adequate levels. Barely a few weeks into the new fiscal year, we already see day- care centers closed, welfare grants reduced, school lunch programs cut back and other social services trimmed, as local officials refuse to make up for the lost federal dollars.

There is a lot more that is wrong with the block grants idea, or to use the phrase that more accurately describes its thrust, states' rights.

But the overriding reality of block grants is that they are a means of shifting national responsibilities to localities ill-equipped to deal with them. They virtually ensure the end of important survival programs and the starvation of others from either outright neglect or fiscal constraints.

Where can the poor turn, then, if not to state and local governments?

Some suggest the business community will step in and increase its job creation and social responsibility efforts. Doubtless some companies will. Enlightened business leadership has come out forthrightly for just such an activist role. Many have called for increased corporate contributions to charities, job campaigns and greater corporate activism.

But it is not realistic to expect much relief from the business sector. Corporations have been allowed to donate up to 5 percent of taxable income, and the new tax law doubles that to 10 percent. But corporate contributions have averaged about 1 percent for some time now, and there is little reason to assume that the maximum will be reached in the future.

What about private voluntarism, then? The president correctly stressed the American tradition of voluntary support for community needs. Individuals have always been generous with their contributions and their time.

But there are limits to voluntarism that the administration refuses to acknowledge. Recent studies indicate that the voluntary sector will lose some $27 billion in federal aid between 1981 and 1984, and it is unlikely that private donations can plug the gap. Most private giving is to religious organizations, and the social welfare institutions, currently most dependent on federal monies, represent a shrinking sector of the charitable pie.

Conceptually, too, the stress on voluntarism is muddled. We should be well beyond the morally primitive stage of believing that the basics of human existence--jobs, income, food, shelter and health care-- should be provided by individual charity and not by government acting on behalf of a shared community sense of human rights.

Some state and local governments will try to fill the gaps as best they can. Some parts of the private sector will step in to create job and training opportunities and support worthwhile community projects. Some individuals and non-profit agencies will stretch their efforts to the limits to try to help those in need.

But taken together, all of those worthy efforts will be unable to replace the government's resources or its fundamental responsibilities.

The question: "What are the poor supposed to do?" remains unanswered.