Americans have always had mixed feelings about class distinctions, as noted as far back as the early nineteenth century by Alexis de Tocqueville. Americans pride themselves on their revolutionary origins and lack of class consciousness. But they also tend to keep an eye out for the next rung on the economic and social ladder.
When it comes to the issue of hunger and poverty, however, Americans have not been ambivalent. They have shown a deep strain of idealism that such conditions are not to be tolerated. In this century, that idealism resulted in job and relief programs in the 1930s and the war on poverty in the 1960s.
Thus, recent observations by White House counselor Edwin Meese take on special significance in light of most Americans' traditional attitudes toward issues of class consciousness and hunger. Mr. Meese has been faulted for his perception that ''some people'' in the US are ''going to soup kitchens voluntarily.'' Mr. Meese added that ''we have a system in this country that virtually everyone is taken care of. . .''
Is ''every'' American in fact being taken care of? Are widespread reports of hunger and poverty throughout the US to be dismissed as untrue? Surely, the nation's highest elected officials have a special responsibility to ensure, as President Reagan pointed out in defending Mr. Meese, that ''as long as there is one person in this country who is hungry, then that's one person too many, and something must be done about it.''
Mr. Meese may or may not have been misunderstood in suggesting there is no major hunger problem. What was worrisome politically was not just the substance but the tone - that when pressed, Mr. Meese seemed to instinctively deny that such conditions exist. This could strengthen the perception of those who feel the administration has lacked sensitivity to the needy.
It now seems likely that issues of ''class'' and ''poverty'' will be major topics in the 1984 presidential campaign. Democrats will argue that administration policies benefit the affluent at the expense of the middle class and poor. Republicans will argue that the sharp decline in inflation and the vigorous recovery prove that administration policies - the tax cuts, slowdown in nondefense spending, and so forth - further the prosperity of all Americans, including the poor.
Whatever the political nuances, Americans would certainly seem to have a need to make certain that no persons are left out of the current recovery.
It is not surprising that there is little definitive statistical data on the question of poverty. This is true of many social conditions such as the extent of drug addiction, or the precise number of runaways. Approximations must often suffice for making public decisions. Statistical shortfalls, by the way, often apply to other commitments, including deployment of troops.
This much we know: On the issue of poverty, the number of Americans officially counted as below the poverty line ($9,862 in cash income for a family of four in 1982) has grown from 24.5 million in 1978 to 34.4 million in 1982. The administration disputes the numbers, arguing that when noncash benefits such as food stamps are added in, the total number of persons is much smaller.
On the issue of who has benefited from the administration's tax cuts, some studies suggest the poorest 20 percent of the population is worse off than five years ago. Average taxes for the poorest fifth of all Americans will rise from 9 .7 percent of all income in 1979, to a projected 11.9 percent of income in 1984. For the richest fifth of all Americans, the average tax will drop - from 31.6 percent of income in 1979 to 31.1 percent in 1984.
Administration supporters, however, argue that the reductions in tax rates were designed so that the well-to-do would replenish the nation's savings pool and thus further business investment.
Finally, there is the question whether the ''middle class'' is somehow falling ''behind.'' One study suggests the middle class may be shrinking. Yet, according to the Survey Research Center of the University of Michigan, consumer confidence - the average American's economic outlook - is at a ten-year high. Most Americans still consider themselves to be of the ''middle class.''
Whatever the claims and counterclaims, it seems imperative that Washington policy be designed to further economic recovery - yet in such a way that no one is left out. Surely, no American should have to go hungry.