UNLESS I'm mistaken, the big political issue in this fall's election is what is happening to the "middle class" in America. The standard cliche in this country is that the rich and the poor are getting everything, and the middle class is being left out in the cold.

It may be true about the rich, but there is some doubt that the poor class is as well off as the politicians might have you believe.

Since it's too early for the candidates to talk to the poor people - they usually wait until the week before the election to take a walk through a ghetto - I decided to find out if the poor people were as lucky as the middle class thinks they are.

My source was Target, who fits all the qualifications of being poor. He's unemployed, lives in a slum and needs food stamps to keep his family from starving.

"Target," I said, "there's a lot of hostility from members of the middle class because they think you poor people have it made."

"Don't I know it?" Target said. "We're really getting it for being poor. The vibes are everywhere."

"How do you explain it?"

"Well, as I see it, the middle-class people are mad at us because they feel that their taxes are supporting the poor. They're not half as mad at the rich people because they all hope to be rich someday themselves, and they dream of having everything the rich are entitled to . Now, despite the fact that they think we poor are having a ball, I haven't met one person from the middle class who wants to change places with me, though God knows I've made the offer a thousand times."

"That's true. The middle class never thinks it's supporting the rich," I said. "In their hearts, middle-class people think the only ones getting their tax money are the poor."

"Right. But the truth is that a large proportion of the money set aside by the government for the poor is actually going to the middle class. Thousands and thousands of bureaucrats are making very nice middle-class salaries administering the poverty programs. I would guess that the poor people get about 10 cents on the dollars, and the rest goes to keep us poor people honest."

It's true that people get angry when they read a story about the poor people cheating the government," I said.

"Of course they do. But nobody gets uptight when doctors, military contractors and large corporations rip off the government. They figure that's a part of the game. The difference between poor people and the big guys is that they can plead 'no contest' and get fined, while we're urged to plead 'guilty' and take the jail sentence."

Target went on. "The trouble with the middle class is when you mention poor people, they think of blacks, Hispanics and American Indians. They forget that there are millions of poor people eking out a bare existence on Social Security. They're white, elderly and were once part of the middle class until they were wiped out by inflation. Most of them are parents of your present middle class, but when they get mad at the poor they never include their own mothers and fathers in their grousing."

"Is there any way to improve the image of the poor in this country?" I asked Target.

"I believe there is. Once middle-class people realize that we're supporting them more then they're supporting us, they might become more sympathetic to our plight. If I have any legitimate criticism of the poor class, it's that in spite of our numbers we've never gotten our story over to the people. The rich do that so much better."