The staggering unemployment figures prompted me to think about the missing poverty issue in our public debates. There have been moments in American history when leaders and events created or transformed common compassion. Not mere platitudes, but real policies--not wholely effective policies, perhaps, but deeply committed ones.

Of course, there are sporadic outcries from the Hill, the editorial pages and beleaguered organizations. We also have cynical official assurances that the "truly needy" are doing just fine. (Especially since many of them are cheats, the budget-slashers intimate). But expressions of concern for the poor coming from our elected and appointed officials have sounded hollow for several years now. They feel no anguish. Indeed, neo-liberalism's principal rhetorical imperative is to drop the needy and talk about capital markets.

The passionless leadership on the poverty issue is surely both cause and effect of a passionless people. While I am not one of those who believe Americans are totally selfish these days, it seems we care almost exclusively about the distress of the person next door, or the individual brought under our noses, or perhaps the specific charity beating down the front door with mass mail salvos. What remains of our capacity to care about the suffering of communities at home or abroad that we don't know? There is a blinding nearsightedness. Our notions of community seem to be disintegrating or contracting, despite modern media and transportation. You don't have to worry about everyone, after all. Look out for yourself and your immediate surroundings.

This seems a central premise of President Reagan's federalism. It is not without logic, because if the people way over there are not really part of what we feel to be our community, why should they be able to use the national government to tell us what to do, or vice versa? Even more important, why should the national government tax us to help them solve their community's problems. Let those people make the decisions about, and bear the cost of, their own decrepit prisons and their brigades of unemployed, illiterate youth. And we'll worry about our own tired problems of justice and need, if we want to.

Even though this domestic isolationism and selfishness now masquerade as budget policy and a new federalism, the fraud is plain. With respect to a great many important issues, including poverty, we should not accept a fragmented portrait of America as a confederation of some 50 communities or 50,000 neighborhoods with impenetrable walls to isolate our wealth and our problems. This alleged separateness is belied by the shared emotional effects of an attempted assassination, the return of the hostages or the terrorizing of Atlanta's children.

So at some times for some problems we do feel as one community. But for what problems? This is the key question for federalism.

It cannot be too much to hope that after two centuries of change and progress the nation is one community of shared commitment to certain substantial entitlements to social and economic decency and dignity. How can we ignore the people of Poorville, when they are in so many senses part of our community? We and our leaders must care about the well-being of those in our community, not to prevent revolution or crime, and not to improve the tax base or provide skilled workers for growth industries--but just because denying the force of community will surely be alienating and morally debilitating.

Poverty is an ugly and unpopular topic in government councils because our leaders rarely deserve the label, and our own collective perceptions have not been focused on need in the same way that modern media and simple self-interest cause us--the well-educated and relatively well- off--to focus on designer jeans, frozen pizza and Three Mile Island. There is no effective political constituency for poverty. (The self-proclaimed moral constituency is otherwise occupied.)

Wringing our hands will not give us thoughtful leaders, or we would certainly have them now. But what will make a sense of responsibility well up in our community again? It will probably not be the clergy, or a new TV sitcom, or even a trickle of effective journalism, although all of these could help. It may take beggars under our noses, on our corners, outside our theaters and restaurants. We need constant reminders that even in America there is need and there is hopelessness.

Our president has called for voluntary efforts to reinvigorate the country. Very well. Let us have volunteers. A few souls who will stop waiting in lines at the unemployment and welfare offices, waiting for a chance on ghetto stoops or in our union hiring halls. Volunteers who will take to the streets and beg. Reawakening our sense of community may reinvigorate our leaders.