The Carter administration came under heavy fire yesterday in Congress and out for putting off specific welfare reform proposals until August.

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), a black from Harlem, told Health, Education and Welfare Secretary Joseph A. Califano. "It now seems clear that the needs of the poor are not a clear priority of this administration."

And the National Association of Counties accused Carter at a news conference of retreating from a campaign promise to seek immediate relief for local governments crippled by high welfare costs.

Califano vigorously defended his decision not to give Carter "a detailed blueprint" for welfare reform by the May 1 deadline the President set during the first weeks of his administration.

He told a House Ways and Means welfare subcommittee that sorting through the existing $50 billion worth of overlapping and sometimes contradictory welfare programs had proved ". . . more complex than I thought it was going to be . . . I don't think we should move until we can be sure that millions of children, who are the most precious resource we have right now, will not be hurt."

Specific reform proposals " . . . are just not in my head or the President's head at this point in time," Califano said. "We literally do not know what happens under a number of alternatives state-by-state."

Subcommittee Chairman Jams C. Corman (D-Calif.) told Califano, "I think some of us thought that the administration would pass us the ball on the 50-yard line. We are now on our own two, and we had best go down the field together."

Rangel said he didn't understand how Carter could "get a fix on a complex defense budget," and "pull together in a few short days legislative recommendations on enerty reorganization," but on welfare reform, "he's merely stating what Gerald Ford and everyone else had said should be the goal . . ."

"What makes this dealing with the problems of the poor so difficult that I have to return to my district and say it'll take four years to lock some of these into place?"

Corman's California and Rangel's New York together contain 23.7 per cent of all welfare recipients, and are two of the 11 states where cities are asked to bear a share of welfare costs.

Rep. Willis D. Gradison Jr. (R-Ohio) said the administration and Congress should be "more forthright" in recognizing that any workable reform program "is going to cost a lot more" than the present system. Similar comments came from Rep. William M. Broadhead (D-Mich.)

The first of 12 reform principles which Carter outlined Monday was "no higher initial cost than the present system."

Without facing up to higher costs, Gradison said, "I don't see how we're going to build the support we need." The cost limit was also the main thing criticized by the National Association of Counties.

Califano said there has been no change in Carter's priorities "that I've been able to detect."

He emphasized several times that a society with "the kind of affluence this one has "should be able to make sure no citizen lives without dignity.

"I didn't take on the job as secretary . . . to put more money into the hands of people who have too much already," he said.