Giving to charity declines in Scrooge's America, and that's not bad

This just in from the Department of Why I am Not Suprised: Americans are giving less to charity this Christmas.

A recent poll from the Red Cross shows that 20 percent of Americans plan to reduce their charitable giving this year. Salvation Army centers and Toys for Tots drives across the country all report decreased giving of at least that much. Indeed, donations to the San Francisco Firefighters Toy Program are down a whopping 60 percent from last year, while demand is up almost 20 percent. "A lot of people who donated last year are now in lines to receive help," said Sally Casazza, the program's chair. "This is our worst year ever."

According to the Conference Board, a business research group, American households are expected to spend an average of $390 on Christmas gifts this year. That's down from $418 last year, YET, a survey from American Express says that consumers are more likely to cut friends and family off their lists than - OMG - their pets. Pets? Seriously? My dog is one of the great joys of my life, but he's just as happy to roll on a dead bird as get a Christmas gift.

Meanwhile, the National Christmas Tree Association (didn't know there was such a thing, huh?) predicts a "very busy" 2009 season, and sales of Santa suits are up 10 percent over last year. "Christmas spirit may not be the only driving force," says Jim Moore, Marketing Manager for CostumeSuperCenter.com. "It's possible that the recent high unemployment rates may actually be driving the sale of Santa suits in men looking to make some holiday money while searching for full-time work." So it's entirely possible that the guy in your kid's Christmas photo is Tiger Woods.

So what do these conflicting trends tell us about ourselves? As far as I can see, this Christmas middle-class Americans are being more selfish than elfish. As one of the 7.2 percent underemployed not included in the 10 percent unemployment rate, I'm just as guilty. Which makes me wonder: as we tighten our purse strings, are we also becoming a nation of Scrooges?

After all, representatives from several theaters I'm not at liberty to mention (because I can't remember their names) informed me that their annual production of "A Christmas Carol" funds the rest of their season. Which means middle-class Americans are still willing to spend money to see a play about giving to the poor instead of, y'know, actually giving to the poor.

Why anyone ever needs to see "A Christmas Carol" again escapes me, but I hope audiences will be moved, though not in the way you'd think. Sure, Scrooge is a heartless penny-pinching miser, but the only reason he has all that money to give at the end is because, hello, he SAVED IT.

Indeed, the Commerce Department reports that the recession has Americans actually saving at our highest rates since 1993. So perhaps we are being a little like Scrooge this season.

And that, my friends, is The Upside.

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