TO THEIR CREDIT, the District's banks are offering some credit to the "winter poor" -- the growing number of people with modest incomes who can cope financially in warmer weather but lack the cash to pay high heating bills all at once. Those who heat their homes with gas or electricity can often ease the jolt by arranging a stretched-out or deferred-payment plan with the utility involved. But those who burn oil often get squeezed because their suppliers have cash-flow problems themselves and cannot wait to be paid.

that's where the banks come in. Spurred by councilwoman Wihelmina Rolark, members of the D.C. Bankers' Association have agreed to make smaller-than-usual loans, perhaps $400 or $500, to generally prudent people who face high heating oil bills. The credit will not come free; borrowers will have to pay interest of 11 percent or more. This may seem like one more round of the harsh spiral in which rising energy costs feed inflation, which pushes up interest rates, which force consumers to pay more rent money to pay for fuel. But the banks will not make money from these loans. The interest rates will be below what the banks themselves have to pay. In fact, because the amounts will be small, the interest may just cover the loan processing costs.

It's a good example of private initiatives responding to public needs. Some local officals have discussed going further and setting up new, government-supervised credit pools or programs for the "winter poor." If public funds permit, interest subsidies might be given to people whose incomes are just above the cutoff point for outright grants. But an elaborate new public program may not be necessary if enough suburban banks and other area financial institutions follow the District banks' lead.