Last month, the stock market collapsed, and everyone said something must be done. The federal deficit must be narrowed. The dollar cannot be allowed to fall further. The trade deficit must be closed. The president must exercise leadership. From Washington to New York, everyone was ordered to battle stations. A recession, maybe a depression, was heading our way.

There is no underestimating the seriousness of the stock market collapse. Lots of people lost lots of money -- and the victims were not only the wealthy. Many Americans now have their savings invested in the stock market, either directly through the purchase of stocks or through pension or savings plans. These people, especially if they are about to retire, are poorer today than they were just a little while ago.

But certain segments of American society are already in a depression -- both an economic and a psychological one. The Wall Street Journal recently sent a reporter to Girard, Kan. It's a depressed community, dependent on farming, whose residents wondered why the collapse of the stock market demanded instant action while the collapse of the rural economy has caused little panic. "It seems to me we've had a depression all the days of our lives," said one 68-year-old resident.

The same question could be asked by members of the American underclass -- particularly women and children. Depression is both their plight and their fate. This is true for the poor of all races, but the statistics are especially stark for blacks. As Andrew Hacker points out in the current New York Review of Books, more than 60 percent of all black children are born outside of wedlock, more than half of all black families are headed by women, and most black children live only with their mothers. The consequence of these appalling statistics is appalling poverty. Almost 30 percent of all black families live below the official poverty level.

As for black men, only 40 percent last year had full-time jobs. Indeed, so footloose and impoverished is the existence of impoverished black males that an estimated 20 percent of them are missed by the Census. Their fatherhood is casual, job prospects almost nil, educational level abysmal, and chances of becoming victims of violence or drugs fairly good.

This is a true depression, worse than anything that befell the nation from 1929 to the onset of World War II, yet it has produced no panic and no crisis meetings in Washington. Instead, the plight of the underclass, particularly the black one, has produced a shrug of the shoulders. A welfare reform bill pokes through Congress at a pace that makes the budget reconciliation process seem swift. There are fears that in an era of austerity its cost may be prohibitive -- never mind the human cost in the meantime.

Partly, this indifference to the poor is a reflection of the electoral system. The poor are notoriously bad about voting. They don't contribute to political candidates. They have no political action committees, and, of course, most of them -- the children -- are too young to vote. A system that responds to votes and money has no cause to respond at all when it comes to the poor.

In addition, the early primary or caucus battlegrounds are atypically white. This hardly means that they have no poor, but they have precious few poor urban blacks: Iowa is about 1 percent black; New Hampshire even less so. The rhetoric of the candidates reflects these realities. For instance, a consensus is emerging in the Democratic Party on the need for more day care, but that's because the issue now affects the middle class. More than 60 percent of all mothers work.

The national indifference to the underclass will come to haunt us. By failing to address the problem, we are losing our most valuable resource -- children. Programs that could reach them at an early age and possibly break the cycle of poverty are either being underfunded or not even being attempted. The Reagan administration even tried to gut the Head Start program for preschoolers despite an abundance of evidence proving its worth. The money being saved now will come due, compounded greatly, in welfare costs, in crime and, of course, in the lost promise of wasted lives.

The collapse of the stock market, blamed by some on a panic, in itself produced a panic. We were all horrified at the prospect of yet another depression -- of poverty, unemployment and the social malaise that would result. But that is precisely the plight of some of the nation at the moment. For these people, the depression has been under way for some time, and maybe what's most depressing about it is how little most of us seem to care.