High hopes for black progress during Jimmy Carter's presidency apparently did not materialize. The economic condition of black Americans did not improve at all, and in some cases actually declined. Despite efforts by the administration to bring blacks into the mainstream of society, the percentage of blacks below the national proverty level increased from 29.4 percent in 1976 to 30.6 percent in 1978. Comparable figures for whites were 9.1 percent and 8.7 percent, respectively.

Several factors account for the worsened economic condition of blacks during the Carter presidency. First blacks, having contributed significantly to Carter's election, overestimated what he could do for them as president and did not take the initiative to help themselves. Second, programs that would have benefited blacks were a natural casualty of the administration's general inability to deal effectively with Congress. Third, the administration's poor stewardship of the economy inevitably afected blacks, traditionally the least prepared to cope with economic slumps.

The situation was exacerbated by the presence of middle-class blacks throughout the country, leading many whites to think that equality for blacks had come and blacks could now be competed with on an equal basis. Assaults on programs presumed to favor blacks, ranging from ongoing social programs to affirmative action programs, ensued. Meanwhile, the inclusion of white women in affirmative action programs increased the competition for these programs.

The net result of these developments was to frustate the administration's efforts to help blacks and to divert resources from valuable programs in order to combat legal challenges and lobbying by whites. Ultimately, at the peak of the recession in July 1980, while the national unemployment rate was only 7.8 percent, that for blacks was 16.3 percent. This is a manifestation of the standard labor market phenomenon that blacks are last hired and first fired.

The most significant factor is the most subtle: President Carter helped for the wrong group of blacks. By relying on traditional liberal Democratic policies, Carter neglected the underclass blacks. This group, located primarliy in the decaying urban areas, includes the unskilled, the structurally unemployed (because of automation and relocation of industries), new entrants into the labor market and those who have given up on the system.

Although federal aid for the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) increased from $5.3 billion to $11.9 billion during the Carter presidency, the underclass blacks were almost untouched. The unemployment rates for 16-to-19-year-old and 20-to-24-year-old blacks were 41.3 percent and 24.5 percent, respectively, in October 1980. This occurred at a time when total employment rose to an all-time high of 97.2 million.

As blacks were increasingly unable to find jobs, the percentage of blacks below the national poverty level rose. More than 30 percent of all blacks and 50 percent of black female heads-of-household were below the national proverty level in 1978 (the last year for which public data exist). The deteriorating economic condition of the underclass blacks took its toll on society. In 1979, blacks accounted for 44.1 percent of all violent crimes and 29.4 percent of all property crimes.

The failure of the underclass blacks to make any gains under Jimmy Carter, a president generally thought to have been sympathetic to their cause, raises fundamental questions about the efficacy of conventional programs designed to help them. In a period of declining resources, should programs be directed at blacks in general, in the hope that the effects will filter through to the underclass blacks? Or should some programs be directed specifically at the underclass blacks and, if so, in what proportions?

American cannot avoid these questions forever. There is no test more crucial facing the Reagan "Enterprise Zones."