With US unemployment now at one of the highest levels since World War II, the Reagan administration's rush to put the final wraps on a new urban program designed to provide private-sector jobs in depressed communities comes none too soon. The question is whether it will come too late. It could be 1983 or 1984 before the program gets underway.
The novel approach, which is expected to be a key element of Mr. Reagan's State of the Union address later this month, will call for establishment of ''urban enterprise zones'' in blighted neighborhoods. Tax incentives would be offered firms willing to settle in such areas and employ set numbers of local workers.
The enterprise zone concept - first developed, ironically, in England a number of years ago under the aegis of socialists - has been championed in the United States by an unlikely coalition of liberals, blacks, conservative businessmen, and some civil rights groups. The two guiding hands behind the US plan have been Democratic Bronx Congressman Robert Garcia and Republican Congressman Jack Kemp, also from New York State. Now the administration is moving to make the plan a centerpiece of the President's entire ''urban strategy'' for the 1980s.
The plan is a worthy one and deserves support. But at the same time the administration must be faulted for not developing an interim jobs program geared to ensuring employment for minority workers until such time as those expected new plants in urban zones throw open their gates and scoop up scores of unemployed workers. The administration has already sharply curtailed public-sector job training programs. While it is reportedly planning to provide about $2.4 billion for manpower and private-sector job training programs in fiscal 1983, this will be far below the $8 billion budgeted for fiscal year 1981 or the $4.5 billion budgeted for fiscal 1982.
So far as the enterprise zone concept itself is concerned, the administration is on target in seeking long-range job creation in the private sector as the best solution to minority urban zones. At least five states have passed legislation setting up urban zones. More states are considering such measures.
Under the Reagan plan businesses locating in depressed areas would be given a combination of various tax incentives, providing - wisely - that certain percentages of local workers were hired to work in the plants. This approach differs from the original British formula, which was keyed primarily to establishment of a factory or plant, without regard for what workers were employed or the nature of the work. In any case, there is evidence in the US that firms may be willing to locate in inner-city areas. The Digital Equipment Company, for example, a New England-based high-technology firm, has located plants in minority communities in both Boston and Springfield, Mass. - partly because of tax incentives.
The Reagan administration should therefore press ahead with its urban enterprise plan. But it ought to be more aggressive than has been the case in ensuring that current job training programs are adequately funded.