Boston — The White House, identified by many Americans with the ''trickle down'' theory of economic recovery, says a recovery is under way.
But the nation's small-business men are not so sure.
''We're the guys waiting for it to trickle down,'' says Andrew M. Monahan, president of the Smaller Business Association of New England (SBANE).
Asked in a recent SBANE survey whether President Reagan's economic program had ''started working for your company,'' 81 percent of the member companies responding said, ''No.''
Yet narrative comments returned with the survey from this Democratic corner of the nation were surprisingly kind to the administration. Many businessmen said the President's program had already held prices down and needed more time to work.
Although America's large corporations attract attention as they rise or decline, the nation's 15 million small businesses (500 employees or less) continue to be an important economic bellwether. ''Small business in the last 10 years has created about 90 percent of the new (nongovernment) jobs in this country,'' says Mr. Monahan, using figures from President Reagan's State of Small Business report published last March.
So where do these entrepreneurs think the economy is headed?
Surveys of small business conducted in New England and southern California by the accounting firm of Touche Ross & Co. point to the current recession lasting at least another six months, says Touche Ross partner Alan R. Goldstein.
The California survery, published last April, indicated less curtailment of capital expenditures, higher short-term borrowing, and a more favorable response to the President's program than the SBANE survey.
The latter, polling 680 presidents and top-level managers, showed ''both optimism and pessimism,'' says Mr. Goldstein. After weathering the recession well for the last two years, the region is finally ''in for a pinch,'' he concludes. Predictably, businesses most hurt include construction, manufacturing, and real estate companies.
According to the survey:
* Half the participants will curtail capital spending and 49 percent will hire no new employees in the near future.
* 53 percent expect earnings to fall.
* Nearly 9 in 10 look for increases in small-business failures in the next year, although most felt the increases would be only ''moderate'' by nationwide standards. Last week the number of US business failures rose to the highest level in 50 years - a total of 696 closings or reorganizations during the week - says a Dun & Bradstreet report.
But the survey also rang positive notes:
* Asked how they would obtain capital to maintain liquidity during the lean period ahead, a surprisingly high 23 percent of the respondents said they would invest their own private capital into their businesses. To some extent, that is seen as a sign of faith that the business climate will improve.
* Asked how they planned to grow, 68 percent said they intended to ''introduce new products and services'' - an answer in keeping with the region's reputation for innovation and inventiveness.
The SBANE survey, conducted in late June and early July, may have been overtaken by events. Since then, interest rates have dropped sharply. And on Aug. 31, the day the survey was released, the Dow Jones industrial average broke 900 for the first time in a year, and the Commerce Department released July figures for its index of leading indicators (showing a solid 1.3 percent gain) and its report on factory orders (showing a 2 percent increase, the largest since 1980).
But Mr. Goldstein remains cautious. ''My clients are not changing just because of that,'' he says. ''Things have moved a little too quickly; I think we're looking at a temporary aberration,'' he adds.