SHOULD CORPORATIONS be expected to fill the money gap for social programs that have been cut by the federal government? And if a lot of people decide they should, does it necessarily mean that they can or will?

The president has repeatedly urged the private sector--including corporations, which now give $2.7 billion a year to philanthropic causes--to increase charitable contributions as government spending is reduced. In October, he announced the appointment of a Task Force on Private Sector Initiatives headed by C. William Verity, chairman of Armco. The task force is supposed to get private groups to work with state and local governments in support of social programs whose budgets have been cut by Washington. A realist, Mr. Verity has stated: "It's going to be a very tough job."

This skepticism was no doubt reinforced the other day when the Conference Board, a New York- based business research institute, issued a report that shows why it is naive to count on corporations to take up the slack. The Conference Board survey of 427 major corporations showed that only 6 percent planned to increase gifts in response to the president's exhortations. While a majority will probably contribute more this year than last--a total of about $100 million more--increases were planned before federal budget cuts and are really a function of higher profits and inflation. In other words, when money is available, gifts will increase. But when corporations feel squeezed, contributions will be reduced. While this pattern is eminently understandable, it does not commend itself as much of a basis for long-range planning for important social programs.

The survey also highlights an important flaw in the plan to shift responsibility to businesses. Corporations tend to support certain kinds of charitable endeavors and not others. The arts and education are popular and relatively noncontroversial. Other programs that have been funded by the federal government, such as legal services, housing assistance and health care, are, by and large, not regarded as the responsibility of corporations and are less likely to receive help.

We're not suggesting that the corporations have let the public down on this one. In fact, people shouldn't expect American business to shoulder a large part of the social obligations that the society as a whole ought to bear. If people believe that health care, security in old age, a decent diet and minimal legal services ought to be provided to even the poorest citizens, then they should be willing to share the cost. The financing and successful operation of social programs should not be made to depend upon the level of corporate profits or the board room view of the merits of the program. The general public must decide, and once it has decided, it must pay.