Why prosperity puts less in the red kettle

Despite all its obvious benefits, prosperity sometimes produces unexpected consequences. Just ask officials of the Salvation Army in Boston.

Last Friday, as government leaders in Washington were announcing the good news that more Americans are working than ever before, Salvation Army officers were dealing with some not-so-good news: Because of low unemployment, they can't find enough volunteers and paid workers to ring bells at the red kettles that make up the heart of their century-old holiday fund-raising campaign.

Capt. Edgar George, organizer of the kettle drive in Chelsea, Mass., calls this "probably the most difficult year in the 12 years I've been doing this." His counterpart in Quincy, Mass., Maj. Robert Klenk, has 18 approved locations for kettles but can only staff eight of them.

Another challenge is the weather, so unseasonably warm in the Northeast last week that a United Parcel driver in Boston was delivering holiday packages in shorts. "From the looks of our totals, people are not thinking Christmas," Captain George says. As of Friday, kettle donations in his area were nearly $5,000 lower than last year. Statewide, bell-ringers collected just $200,000 in the first 10 days. To meet their goal of $2.2 million, they must collect another $2 million by Christmas Eve.

Michael Fetcho, assistant community relations director for the Salvation Army in Boston, quotes a fund-raising maxim that applies not only to kettles but to direct mail: "When the weather is colder, people give more money." They think about what it would be like to be homeless and dig a little deeper in their pocket.

Variables like these represent fund-raising problems that passersby, hearing the familiar ring of a Salvation Army bell, seldom imagine. Ironically, prosperity can mask the very needs charitable groups seek to meet. It is a mistake, Mr. Fetcho says, to assume that giving automatically goes up when the economy is strong and unemployment is low. Sometimes the reverse is true. "When people feel the pinch themselves, and then see someone worse off, they're more cognizant of the need," he says.

That need is greater this year because of welfare reform, George observes. Almost two dozen families crowded into the front hall outside his office last Friday. Some are current or former welfare recipients. Others hold jobs but are struggling to make ends meet. All have come here to sign up for a food basket that will include Christmas dinner, plus enough extra food to feed a family for three or four days. Each child will also receive at least one new toy or outfit.

At another popular charity, the annual Toys for Tots drive sponsored by the Marine Corps, Maj. Brian Murray, director of operations, estimates that donations are keeping pace with 1997, a record-setting year. Still, he says, "We never meet the need. Between 15 and 16 million American children are living in poverty. Last year we reached just under 5 million of them." The challenge, he adds, is getting Americans to understand the magnitude of the need.

In a high-tech age filled with slick advertising and aggressive telemarketing, there is something quaintly reassuring about red kettles on street corners, toy collection bins in shopping malls, and food-pantry barrels waiting for donations in churches and supermarkets. These low-tech devices help to keep the human in humanitarian. They also serve as tangible reminders that a rising Dow has not lifted all families out of poverty.

Finally, they prove once again that the simplest gestures - a modest donation, a smile, and a heartfelt "Thank you, God bless" greeting bestowed on a donor - can, when multiplied millions of times between now and Christmas, make all the difference to those who would otherwise go without.

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