Sometimes statistics take on a mysterious significance, not to be explained by the precise logic of mathematics. The stock market goes through 1,000, and a burst of energy surges through the community at large, well beyond the ranks of Wall Street investors.
The unemployment figure hits double digits, and something else happens. Suddenly everybody knows somebody who is unemployed - assuming one is employed oneself. And at that moment one feels ancient insecurity, or a renewed sense of compassion for all that is human - to some extent, the choice is ours. In either case, one stops taking for granted certain things that should never be taken for granted.
The mood is quite different from the Great Society days of the '60s. Then the poor were ''they,'' and nobody knew anybody out of work. But not since the brief years of Lyndon Johnson's ''war against poverty'' have Americans been made so aware of the poor, in their midst and elsewhere around the world.
Writers of letters to the editors of the New York Review of Books find themselves, perhaps to their astonishment, discussing ''The Underclass'' by Ken Auletta, a study of the dispossessed on the streets of American cities. ''It is rare,'' one marveling correspondent writes, that the ''underclass (why not call them indigenous poor?) are the subject of reviews.'' Yet letter writer after letter writer takes up one aspect or another of being homeless and penniless - of being, in George Orwell's words, ''down and out.'' Who is responsible? What can be done? The questions fairly fly across these pages usually reserved for more literary debates.
Nor is sensitivity limited to the domestic scene, as it was in the '60s. ''A Seventh Man'' by John Berger with photographs by Jean Mohr - just published in this country - does for 10 million or so migrant workers in Europe what James Agee and Walker Evans did for the Southern sharecropper in ''Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.'' And in 1982 we look with fresh sympathy at the faces of the Turks and the Greeks and the Portuguese who are the cheap labor of Germany, France, and Sweden - just as we look with new eyes at the faces of the street people in American cities, fast becoming one of the camera's favorite subjects.
We sense at second hand, but with a little more immediacy, a third world, not necessarily geographical, of migrants sleeping on the floors of Paris cellars, of vagrants on New York doorstoops, of Latin-American peasants crowded into one-room huts. Here is life at the outer edges, on the thinnest margin of subsistence. And in 1982, part of us says, ''There but for the grace of God go I.'' And part of us says, ''Such things do not have to be. Such things should not be.''
Few people in 1982 have romantic illusions about the virtuous poor. Writing about the places Europe's migrant workers come from, even Berger concedes: ''The village is vindictive. The feeble are mocked. The powerful are flattered. There is no need to idealize the village.''
''But,'' he adds, ''sometimes something happens on an ordinary day in a village. A man or a woman acts altruistically. A spontaneous action, quite uncalculated. . . . An offer which is really a sacrifice.'' Something as simple as a hungry person giving food to somebody hungrier.
There is a primary drama here that we in the middle class - we, the 90 percent employed - only imitate. Hunger and thrist for us are mostly metaphors. What we call necessities the third world of peasants and migrant workers and bag people call luxuries. In our ''hard times'' we still pay psychiatrists and gurus to teach us to be happy. We still buy all those books on How To Get Ahead. We still pursue expensive diets and health regimes. We still Know Our Rights and expect them to be satisfied - every last one.
But as we get just that little bit closer to the far edge of affluence, they come back to us now, those faces we have seen over the years on television. The Cambodian boat people. The children of Bangladesh. The Palestinian refugees. And yes, the shelter people of our own cities. And if we do not waste ourselves on fear, something in us recalls what really counts in life, and something else in us cries out: Brother. Sister.m