Here's to the hope that hope will provide

The Legislature convenes today with one overriding concern: finding $5 billion to balance the budget.

New revenues are out of the question. Voters clearly expressed their anti-tax mood in November.

Some savings will come from improving the way government works. Intriguing ideas for streamlining government already are on the drawing board.

But the bulk of the budget-balancing act only can come from slashing programs. Gov. Chris Gregoire's proposed budget paints a clear picture -- this will hurt.

The Legislature will tweak the budget during the next few months, but Gregoire is right in comparing any changes lawmakers might make to shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic. Good alternatives don't exist.

In proposing deep cuts to social services, the governor called on charities, churches, families and generous strangers to fill the gap.

It's a lofty ideal. One that sounds good on paper.

After all, it worked in the story of stone soup. Some men started a pot of water boiling in the middle of town and added a few pebbles to it. Curious townsfolk began to donate a few herbs and vegetables, and by working together they fed each other.

It is amazing to see how a little generosity among neighbors can snowball into a full-fledged food drive or how the community reaches out to a family in need or other worthy causes.

Many of us can spare a "little something," even if it's not much. And each "little something" adds up. An ocean is made up of drops of water.

A Dec. 13 Tri-City Herald article illustrated how dozens of churches in the Tri-Cities helped thousands of families in the Mid-Columbia during the Christmas season -- many more than in years past.

There are, no doubt, many more churches and organizations helping out that were not mentioned in that story.

The increased need shows that society already is feeling the pinch, and this is before the main budget cuts take place.

Another story, on Dec. 25, introduced Angel Ministries' effort to help people in the Tri-Cities stretch their food budget by providing low-cost food boxes with no limitations on who can purchase them.

It almost sounds like a co-op, and for those whose food budget doesn't quite cover their costs, the program can be a godsend.

But these examples of generosity haven't allayed our fears about the impact of deeper cuts to social service programs. The private agencies trying to pick up the slack are likely to be overwhelmed.

It's easy to fill a box for the Salvation Army at Christmas, but the need continues well past the end of December.

We hope hardships are few and philanthropists are many, but we have our doubts.

Many of the charities, churches and families the governor is counting on find themselves in the same budget squeeze that is choking the state.

There might not be a lot of resources available.

And what happens when people start to fall through the safety net? Will they find themselves on the street or in jail? Either outcome carries a high cost for society.

In some cases, the need is much greater than a box or two of food. People require medical needs, prescription drugs for chronic conditions and mental health treatment.

Faith-based providers such as Grace Clinic or LDS Social Services will pick up some slack but not all of it.

There are no easy answers, and perhaps no answers at all. Even more alarming, cuts in social services might not be the worst of it.

Good schools, good roads, safe communities, thriving colleges and more -- the very investments necessary to ensure a brighter economic future for Washington -- are endangered.

That might be the bigger cause for concern. Stone soup we can live with, but not if it means eating our seed corn.