As America's recession spreads, it is dramatizing one of the nation's truly troubling divisions: the conflict between what people want from their government and what they are willing to pay for.

Tax revolts are springing up everywhere, and voters are tossing out politicians who don't seem to get the message. But this angry message is coming at the worst possible time, when governments at every level are straining to make ends meet, laying off workers and postponing such critical chores as maintaining bridges and roads. Resources are stretched so thin that the idea of tackling new problems is just about out of the question.The recession makes the squeeze especially painful; and the economic recovery, when it begins, will help ease the stress on badly strained state and local budgets. But it is sheer delusion to imagine that the gathering hardship is only temporary. Financial pressures on state and local governments are climbing and are stretching their resources. As costs continue to climb, government finds it increasingly tough to meet its basic obligations; as those obligations are shirked, the quality of life for many Americans will continue to slip.

Signs of distress are everywhere. At least 30 states face budget deficits in 1991, some of them severe; and the pinch is most severe in the Northeast, where the economic slowdown has had longer to work. New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, already cramped by his most austere budget in eight years, is talking of massive layoffs of state workers and sharp cuts in state aid to schools.

Newly elected governors in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island all face shrinking revenues and climbing costs. And few states face grimmer economic news than New Jersey, where the biggest tax increase in the state's history was followed the other day by news that state revenues are still $600 million short.

What is unsettling is the realization that most city and state governments have great trouble just handling their present responsibilities, never mind grappling with larger problems. Budgets, spending and taxes are the top concern in nearly every state capital and major city hall. In Congress, as in most state capitals, ideas for new initiatives are only gathering dust, while budget officers struggle to find more ways to cut spending.

Reading this somber news, one finds it hard to shake the feeling that America's state and local governments are in for a period of exceptional strain, and perhaps a long one. In most major cities and even in many states, demands on resources are climbing just when those resources are shrinking, and when people are roaring against new taxes. Ironically, these pressures come just after a decade that saw the Reagan and Bush administrations transfer many federal responsibilities to the states.

Faced with sagging revenues and climbing costs, many mayors and governors are taking the only politically safe choice available and slashing away at spending. This is prudent policy, but only up to a point. For as government begins to abdicate its fundamental responsibilities, some basic qualities of life start to fray.

Hospital corridors don't get cleaned. Potholes don't get patched. Old school textbooks don't get replaced. Medical bills for the poor don't get paid. Homeless people continue to wander streets, welfare caseloads continue to climb and older urban core cities continue to rot.

Such ills and unmet tasks, involving what should be fundamental obligations of government in a modern and humane society, constitute nothing less than a national disgrace. But many Americans seem unbothered by the fact that in their supremely wealthy nation, many inner cities are burned-out combat zones, its infant mortality rate is shamefully high, and many of its city kids never finish high school.

Such failings impose huge costs on American society as a whole. The costs are not only financial (welfare, prisons, remedial training programs and the like) but psychological, in the form of stress, mistrust and opportunities that are passed by. When people rally against taxes, these hidden costs of government neglect tend to be ignored. By voting to deny government the resources to meet the basic responsibilities we expect it to handle, we ensure that a fundamental, central portion of the American social compact is being set aside.