''Concern for the hard times of others.'' This is the historic root of American charity in the phrase of one of the new chariteers racing to offset federal cutbacks for the poor.
The heartwarming fact is that giving has not been stifled even in the lowest economic category (families with income of $5,000 or less), where last year's average amount was $238, to set beside an overall average of $475.
The stark challenge is to maintain and increase donations to voluntary organizations serving social needs that are calculated to lose $115 billion in federal money from 1982 to 1985 - including a loss of $33 billion in direct aid to these organizations. And this in the face of new tax laws projected to cut charitable giving by $18 billion over four years.
The loss of federal money may be causing valuable scrutiny of both government and private programs. New efficiencies are being sought. Overlappings are being looked for. President Reagan's Task Force on Private Sector Initiatives could have an impact with last week's call for business and individuals to double their gifts over the next four years.
But there is no way private philanthropy and voluntary organizations can cover a significant portion of the federal budget cuts in their areas of activity, said Independent Sector, an alliance of foundations, businesses, and voluntary groups, earlier this year. And they will not even come close to covering direct losses to the voluntary organizations themselves without immediate steps to stimulate more giving.
Independent Sector is leading a campaign next year to keep alive that ''concern for the hard times of others'' that has been characteristic of Americans. It sees that the tax-break motive will not be enough next year, when the new laws will make deductible donations cost more for high-income givers.
Lower-income givers are wooed by the new provision allowing charitable deductions on the short form. But 1983 could be a test of whether those with incomes above $30,000 will be as much influenced by taxes as before. If they are , according to Brian O'Connell, president of Independent Sector, giving is certain to decline, ''but to the extent we can stimulate the other larger motivations for giving, we can begin to solve the problems and strength-en the basic fiber of the country.''
Many Americans will not want to wait until next year to think whether they can do more than they are doing to ease the hard times of others. Salvation Army reports indicate how many more people are in want at this Christmas season than in the past, how resources to meet them are running out sooner than usual. This newspaper's articles on hunger in last Friday's paper - hunger in the richest country in the world - provide further information on meeting dire needs. In the same issue an education section shows how foundations are helping schools, though once more it is acknowledged that private money cannot replace tax dollars and can only seed new programs.
If the past is prologue, Americans will rise to the occasion. Note that last year's donations of $53.6 billion were up 11.9 percent, thus at least holding their own against inflation. More than 46 percent went to religious organizations and programs; education was next with almost 7.5 percent, followed by health, social welfare, arts, and others.
Business contributed about 5 percent, foundations about 5 percent, individual bequests about 5 percent. The overwhelming 85 percent continues to come from living individual Americans. And among that 85 percent half of the givers are from families with incomes of $20,000 or less. In addition, 48 percent of Americans contributed regular volunteer efforts estimated to be worth $64.5 billion for the year.
Americans, you have been magnificent. But unless you can persuade your government to do more again - and pay the taxes to do it - you yourselves individually will have to be even more magnificent in the future.