Saturday, December 20, 2008

The Economy and Its Discontents

In this historic period of a global economic downturn, my thoughts have been turning towards those whose personal economies have already arrived to a place of significant decline.

Here in the United States, the use of soup kitchens, food pantries, and other emergency assistance has skyrocketed, and applications to Medicaid continue to climb. An astronomical number of individuals are truly wondering how they will put food on the table, gas in their tanks, or heat in their homes, and those individuals are often living in households with members who are children, elderly, or disabled.

Government figures show that unemployment applications are increasing exponentially, and although Congress has passed legislation to extend unemployment benefits, we all know that the end of such assistance does not always coincide with the procurement of new employment opportunities. As the economic slowdown continues, jobs are being slashed daily in a variety of sectors, the consequence being even more people fiercely competing for a dwindling supply of jobs, many of which offer less-than-stellar compensation frequently without health benefits.

With Christmas and Hannukah upon us, bargain hunters scour the shelves for affordable gifts for friends and family, and the ingredients for holiday meals and celebrations are sought through every frugal means necessary. Granted, we all need to celebrate, but this year has brought a level of economic uncertainty not seen in many decades, ostensibly throwing a wet blanket over many families' ability to partake of the holiday season as they might in a more robust financial climate.

But what of those who were already struggling? What about those who have been visiting soup kitchens and food pantries all along? As more and more jobs are slashed and as individuals use up their unemployment benefits, how will we as a society care for those who cannot make ends meet? And as the facilities who support those struggling families see their own operation costs rise amidst an increase in utilization, how will the needy be cared for?

These are uncertain times, and as I have pointed out on Digital Doorway before, food insecurity is real, and the number of families unable to provide for their children has been increasing like never before.

I offer no solutions here, and I have no grand plan or scheme to short-circuit this calculus of need and insecurity. I only know that I awoke at 4am this morning thinking about the millions of people---in this country alone---who cannot honestly say how they will feed their families this week, let alone provide the makings of a holiday celebration.

With the New Year around the corner, there is always desire for a fresh start and an infusion of hope. On January 20th, an historic event of enormous proportions will take place in Washington, D.C., and all eyes will be on the new President and his administration's ability to turn the economy around as soon as possible. And while I understand the need for inaugural celebrations---especially due to the historic nature of this president's unprecedented accomplishment---I cringe when I think of the millions of dollars that will be spent on dinners, formal balls, and lavish parties as millions of Americans wander the streets in search of low-paying jobs and food pantry handouts. Yes, we all need to celebrate, but that astronomically expensive celebration does indeed give me pause as I ponder the plight of those without the means to even feed their families.

My wife and I are both very blessed to have recently found satisfying and relatively well-paying work right in our own town. No longer commuting forty miles per day, we are among the lucky few who have new jobs, short commutes, and robust benefit packages. We realize how very fortunate we are to be in our current position at a time when so many others have experienced the opposite economic reality. We do not take our situation for granted and fully recognize our blessings.

Perhaps my recent luck in finding gainful employment is what has me awake at 4am, thinking about those who have not been so lucky. Admittedly, we will have no problem putting food on the table this holiday season, and while we are indeed being frugal in terms of gifts for family and friends, we are fully cognizant of the fact that buying those gifts is not a significant burden, even as we write checks to our favorite local, national and international charities. Having the economic means to care for ourselves and give to others is not something we take lightly, and we recognize that it is our ethical responsibility to donate to worthy causes at a time when our donations mean so much.

I am saddened by the current plight of millions of deserving individuals and families, and even as I watch the holiday season unfold, my thoughts turn to those who may feel less than celebratory. These are times requiring a great deal of thoughtful reflection, selflessness and compassion, and I hope that the suffering of so many amidst this global crisis will soon be alleviated. In whatever way I can, I choose to be a part of the solution, and I invite you, dear Reader, to do the same.

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