If everyone could just give 37 cents

December 18, 1997

Truck stops and charitable giving have always been two of the more unconventional, yet to my mind more accurate, indicators of an economy's strength.

Trucks are early tattletales of business' inventories. They start rolling about six months before an upswing and stop rolling about six months before a downturn.

Charitable giving is a tattletale of a more individual nature. People confident the dollars exiting their wallets will be easily replaced are more disposed to generosity.


So what are we to think now? The trucks are still rolling, but despite a cooking economy and an unemployment rate that borders on insignificant, Christmas contributions to Salvation Army kettles - the most basic form of giving - are lagging.

A lot of people giving a tiny amount is in the end more meaningful than a tiny group of people giving a lot.

We don't have to fill out any paperwork to toss a few coins in the pot. There are no special trips to a drop-off center, no regular deductions from our paychecks, no appreciable loss whatsoever save for the six extra calories we burn actually walking to the kettle and reaching into our pockets.

So what's the deal? Two answers are fairly obvious. One is that despite a good economy, people are dedicating their resources toward paying off the debt so many accumulated in the credit-card '80s. Yet that's more of a reason for not giving in chunks. Instead of sending an extra $50 to charity it may seem more pressing to send it off the credit devils who charge 18 percent interest.

But the only excuse I can see for the kettle crunch is laziness or indifference - two traps I fall into all the time.

Here is my actual, twisted logic, which surfaced only last week: I passed a kettle, instinctively fished in my pocket and found three dimes and seven pennies. Of course I didn't put it in the pot because I thought 1., it wasn't worth it, 2., since these 10 coins were a nuisance to me obviously they'd be a nuisance to the Salvation Army and 3., I'd be embarrassed to be putting pennies in the till when obviously I could afford to give dollars.

Doubtless 37 cents is as meaningless to you as it is to me. But there is power in numbers.

There are roughly 400,000 adults in the Tri-State area. I believe it's a fairly conservative guess that each of these adults will pass a Salvation Army pot an average of five times during the Christmas season.

If, on each of these five encounters, shoppers would pitch in the aforementioned 37 cents that would add up to three-quarters of a million dollars worth of toys, food and clothes for the needy of the region. That's about seven times what Tri-State Salvation Army coordinators have set as a goal. Think of the good they could do.

And think of the good they will be called on to do, along with churches and other care-providers, as the government gradually gets out of the charity business.

Here, supporters of welfare reform should pay particular attention. One of the major pillars on which they based their case for diminished public assistance was that the private sector would step in and make up the difference.

So far that's not happening.

Unless private people and businesses start giving, significant numbers of those thrown from the welfare rolls will become desperation cases whose stories will surely be well-documented in the media.

If that happens, public sentiment toward a decreased government involvement will sour, government spending cuts on welfare will cease, even reverse, and we'll be right back where we started.

It is in the interests of those who champion scaled-back entitlements to empty their pockets of coins. And it is in the interests of people who do not favor scaled-back entitlements but do favor human decency to empty their pockets of coins.

But most of all it is in the interests of the people of our community who have fallen on hardship. It is in the interests of the temporarily unemployed afraid of letting down their kids, it is in the interests of the children who through no fault of their own have been born into bitter poverty, or the elderly who are no strangers to hunger, or loneliness, or the feeling that no one cares.

They are our people; we live among each other, we play on the same team. It may be hard to convince Virginia there is a Santa Claus, but it is so blessed easy to prove the existence of Christmas spirit.

All it takes is 37 cents.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist.

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