UNITED WAY is the single enterprise that unites most Central Marylanders. Among all civic endeavors, it creates the deepest sense of community over the broadest area.
Death and taxes are more universal, but United Way is voluntary. In order to give, an individual must first have decided to do so.
United Way is a measurable indicator of how a community feels about itself. It involves a bit of giving to those in need -- from whom we all would hope for a helping hand were situations reversed.
The Baltimore region will be a stronger, healthier, better place in which to live, work and enjoy being, if the United Way of Central Maryland's goal for payroll pledges of $43 million is met in this year's campaign.
This goal is incrementally larger than before but not, in national terms, overly ambitious. Central Maryland has never been high on the nation's charts of charitable giving. It ought to do better.
United Way involves a great many volunteers scrutinizing health and human services agencies' programs and designing the community safety net. The volunteers ensure that these agencies use the money as intended. The campaign seeks employees in workplaces large and small, public and private, for-profit and nonprofit, pledging just once to give payroll donations all year.
Unless a donor specifies otherwise, the money goes to some 125 health and human service programs throughout Baltimore City and Anne Arundel, Baltimore, Carroll, Harford and Howard counties. These provide services needed by most people some time in their lives, that government will not, cannot or should not maintain.
The campaign should hit its target in 2000 because of relatively full employment and a business cycle that remains in growth longer than predicted. Needs are still great. If charitable giving is not generous in these circumstances, then when?
But success is not automatic. The volunteer campaign -- chaired this year by Sun publisher Michael E. Waller -- must adjust to changing employment patterns.
It hopes to build on last year's solicitations of wealthy potential donors, with a special notice of women of high income who may have been insufficiently noticed.
The challenge, years after some industries left town and others were downsized, is to keep up with newcomers and start-ups. High-tech companies are sprouting in city and suburbs. They won't hold payroll campaigns if not asked and can't be asked if not identified. Last year's campaign enrolled 97 new companies. United Way hopes to exceed that this year.
The greatest potential for pledges remains among workers who are neither wealthy nor poor, not new to the work force, and who are rooted in the community.
Neither Vice President Al Gore nor Gov. George W. Bush, whatever their respective virtues, is going to fix the problems of Central Maryland. That's up to the only people who can do it, those who live and work here.