A Crisis in Charity

December 14, 1993

From around the region come alarming stories of charities running dry at a crucial time of year. Carroll County's Neighbors in Need program had hoped to help 1,200 families this year. But as of last week the group had to tell volunteers not to bother to come in to pack holiday food boxes -- there wasn't enough food to fill them.

As The Sun's Liz Atwood reported earlier this week, charities in Anne Arundel County and Harford County also are reporting similar shortfalls. Meanwhile, the United Way is struggling to recoup from a disappointing year, both nationally and here in Maryland.

Are Americans losing their generosity, the concern for those less fortunate that is a hallmark of American values?

Despite the worrisome stories from some charities, there is much evidence to suggest that Americans are at least as generous as ever. A recent survey by the Chronicle of Philanthropy found that donations to charity are rising faster than inflation and the nation's two largest charities, the Salvation Army and Catholic Charities USA, each had 12 percent increases in donations.

Moreover, public opinion is generally supportive of charitable solicitations, even in public places. For several years, shopping malls resisted the Salvation Army with its familiar Christmas music and kettles, fearing that shoppers would view the solicitation as an unwelcome intrusion on the festiveness of the season. Then, in 1991, the International Council of Shopping Centers commissioned a public opinion poll on the subject and found that 69 percent of Americans instead felt that malls should allow charities to solicit money during the holidays. Now the Salvation Army and other such organizations have little trouble getting permission to work in shopping malls.

Even so, as things stand now, too many Maryland charities are hurting this time of year, which means that in many homes this holiday season will be less than joyous. Surely some of the shortfall can be chalked up to middle class insecurity. Too many lay-offs and too much uncertainty about the future can make families more cautious about any expenditure. A bigger culprit, we suspect, is the sheer number of appeals that clutter the mailbox and interrupt the dinner hour. Even a willing donor can be forgiven for feeling overwhelmed.

Time is growing short, but we suspect Marylanders will rescue many of the charities intent on seeing that as many families as possible find something to celebrate this year. The need is greatest in Baltimore City, with its concentration of the poor and destitute. Generosity is alive, but perhaps somewhat confused by over-stimulation.

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