THIS IS especially a child's day, the birthday of a special child, a day on which enchanted children are indulged. But not all children. The magical quality of Christmas is not evenly distributed; it's not even close. The haves amid their gifts, the ribbons and wrapping paper should be able to spare a thought for the have-nots.

The economic expansion of the last eight years is over. It has lifted all the people out of poverty it can, and a fifth of U.S. children are still poor. That's a shameful figure in a rich society, an emblem of neglect on more than Christmas Day. It is rightly ascribed to many causes, including in part the breakdown of the family. Some go so far as to say that a lot of the problem is not society's fault. But surely it is not the children's fault. Nor can it all be laid to individual decisions; this is also a time of increased income inequality in the country. Neither a just nor an efficient society can afford to have so many children poor.

The disparity has not gone unaddressed in recent years. In the last Congress, the first Congress of a conservative administration, good steps were taken. The minimum wage was increased (though only modestly after being allowed to fade for nine years). The earned-income tax credit that functions as a federal supplement to the wages of the working poor with children was expanded. An additional credit to help such families pay for private health insurance was enacted. The expansion of Medicaid was continued so that by about the turn of the century it will cover all children below the poverty line; fewer than half are covered now. A new system of child care grants to the states was likewise enacted, together with a major expansion of Head Start. The Congress before last also set up new machinery to make absent fathers pay child support and to help welfare mothers graduate to work.

But even a relatively mild recession will offset much of this while it lasts. The budget rules are also such that it will be hard to continue increasing aid to the poor; the money will have to come explicitly from other parts of the society. Christmas is a leveling day; it teaches that the money should be found and shifted. It is indeed a blessed day, but it will be more so in a future year when the children are not our poor.