As bulls rush by

THE bulls snort and strut on Wall Street, comfortable in the thin, brisk air of a Dow Jones industrial average over the 1,500 mark. As an economic bellwether, a stock market showing such confidence often presages continued prosperity. Nearby, tens of thousands of New Yorkers spend the night in gymnasiums and armories. Shelters are full. Not just men now, drifters and drunks. But women. And children. To forestall death by freezing, the city has begun rounding up the homeless -- meeting resistance from those who prefer to be left alone, and from civil libertarians who defend that right. As a social bellwether, estimates of 60,000 homeless in New York -- with similar clusters in Boston, Chicago, West Coast cities -- suggest there is a s ubstantial, growing population in need in America whom prosperity is passing by.

The causes and conditions, in public-policy terms, are many: rental units disappearing beneath condo conversions and diminished housing assistance; lack of supportive housing for the mentally ill; divorce laws that leave women particularly vulnerable; workers cut loose by technological change; people left out of altered family structures; as well as the toll of alcohol or private hardships on individuals and families. Winter will not wait for resolving these.

Help agencies like the Salvation Army are struggling to meet this winter's surprisingly early, heavy demand. They are appealing for funds, foodstuffs, and volunteers. Scanning local papers, telephoning a community office, should readily turn up concrete ways to help.

We should be grateful for the structure for assistance that private agencies provide. Newspapers, television stations, local businesses, and church groups similarly offer ways to help. Response to public appeals can be gratifying: Americans have given a record $2.33 billion to the United Way this year. The Salvation Army in Boston made an emergency appeal this week for food, money, and clothing; thousands of people and several businesses responded. The national need for assistance, however, remains acut e.

The private citizen has his own responsibility. Some earnest reflection may turn up someone even in his or her own neighborhood, lacking not shelter or toys, perhaps, but lonely or hard pressed nonetheless, who would welcome a gesture of holiday cheer.

It is hardly fair to accuse prosperity of causing the poverty.

But if our good times find us celebrating at the holiday hearth unmindful of others in need, have we really grasped the significance of the birth in the stable? And can our prosperity truly be riches?

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