Beyond the issue of the strong criticism of Reagan administration economic policies coming out of the annual meeting of the US Conference of Mayors in Denver this week, there is a deeper and more fundamental challenge facing all Americans: namely, ensuring the economic well-being and physical vitality of the nation's cities during a period when federal programs geared to local communities and states are being cut back in general.
Few political observers expected the mayors to be less than critical of the administration. After all, the mayors, many of them Democrats, have faulted administration economic policies in prior meetings in recent years. But what is somewhat different about this year's gathering - and renewed calls for stepped-up federal support for cities - is that it comes against a political backdrop of remarkable inattention, perhaps even indifference, to the cities on the part of the federal establishment in Washington. Granted, the fiscal 1984 budget now being hammered out contains a broad range of programs benefiting municipalities. But in the current budget debate little is being said about cities at all. Rather, the debate revolves almost entirely around such issues as defense, funds for Central America, farm legislation, etc. The cities have assumed a fairly low priority on the current national political agenda.
That inattention is unwise, given the magnitude of financial and social problems faced by so many communities in the US. It is also regrettable given the fact that the administration only a year or so ago proclaimed a ''New Federalism'' for the United States, in which the partnership between cities, states, and the federal government would be put on a more permanent, clearly defined basis.
If nothing else, the calls for financial assistance that are expected to be voted out of today's meeting in Denver should serve as a useful reminder to Washington and the American people that the cities must not be overlooked. Several issues in particular warrant close congressional and administration action:
* The mayors have called for up to $5 billion a year in new federal aid for ''urban infrastructure'' projects - roadways, bridges, water and sewer projects, and so on. Obviously lawmakers would be hard pressed to find such monies at a time of soaring budget deficits. Yet would the nation be any better off by deferring action on such programs until a later time? These projects are really capital programs - legitimate investments in the nation's future. By delaying action, costs will only go up.
* Federal food and other relief programs geared to the cities need to be upgraded and made more efficient. Tales are common of food programs going to areas where they are least needed, while communities where unemployment is high and poverty severe are ignored. With emergency food and shelter grants totaling some $50 million announced recently, the administration should bend every effort to make certain that the aid reaches those persons - and communities - most needing assistance.
Most important, Washington - both the White House and Congress - should assure the nation's mayors that their calls for help are being heard. City officials, for their part, must continue to look to their local taxpayers and the states for additional revenues for public programs at a time of tight federal budgets. That will mean introducing sounder management policies. And, of course, it should be pointed out that it is remarkable that so many cities have undertaken many new building and civic programs in the midst of a major recession.
Still, it would be shortsighted for the federal government to adopt a policy of ''benign neglect'' for America's cities.