This time of year has traditionally been kind to charities. The Salvation Army's collection pots, and those of many other groups, tend to fill up with holiday giving.
That outpouring of goodwill is continuing as 1999 draws to a close. But, according to recent reports, the giving is not keeping pace with the demand faced by agencies that provide food and shelter to needy, homeless, or abused people. Ironically, today's bountful US economy coexists with a growing number of homeless and poor - including families priced out of local housing markets.
The pinch felt by charities isn't a sign of more Scroogeishness among Americans. Overall, charitable giving is up - to a record $175 billion last year. But the majority of that goes either to the general funds of churches, or to cultural organizations like museums or symphonies. Relatively little finds its way directly to the poor.
There's a message here for each individual who has a desire to help. And there's a message for society itself, especially with political leaders suggesting that private and faith-based charities should shoulder a bigger share of the work of aiding the poor. In their view, government would participate indirectly, with expanded charitable tax credits (candidate Bush) or expanded grants (candidate Gore).
Such ideas are well worth pursuing. But they should not be wholesale replacements for well-managed public good works, such as subsidized housing and food-supplement programs for those in temporary need.
The charitable lifeline in a society extends from the giving individual to the private aid agency to, yes, government bureaucracy.
To meet the need, that whole chain must remain intact.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society