December 1, 2012

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A Time of Giving

Change the Odds this Holiday Season

Natalie Gochnour

December 1, 2012

Like many of you, I have a favorite holiday song. It speaks to the opportunities provided to many and the indignities afforded a few.

Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat,
Please place a penny in the old man’s cap.
If you don’t have a penny, a ha’penny will do,
If you don’t have a ha’penny
then God bless you!

Wide disparities in income are a common and unfortunate side effect of market economies. The variation is particularly troubling during the holiday season when those with deep pockets shower the ones they love with expensive clothing, electronic gadgetry, the latest novelties and any number of things, things, things. Meanwhile, those with little in their pockets hunker down, hoping for hope, and hurting for better days.

As I write this column, The Road Home in downtown Salt Lake City is providing emergency shelter and personalized case management for some 1,000 Utah residents. The Bureau of the Census estimates that 13.5 percent of Utahns, or 374,860 people, live in poverty. And, even with a relatively low unemployment rate of 5.2 percent, 70,400 Utahns will go to bed tonight without the wages, security and dignity of a job. Several thousand more have dropped out of the labor force because they are discouraged.

During the holiday season the contrast between rich and poor makes me particularly uncomfortable. One Utah drives nice cars, shops at the Apple Store, lives in five-bathroom homes, dines on spiral cut hams and enjoys a rich material life. The other Utah suffers for want of food, clothing, shelter and personal dignity. Most of us lie somewhere between the two extremes and feel a nagging sense of discomfort about our good fortune when we see people around us struggle.

My commute takes me along State Street, where I occasionally stop at an inner-city grocery store to pick up items for dinner. The store is located in close proximity to a small trailer park, tattered-looking apartments, a Title I school and some not-too-wholesome looking storefronts. The grocery store differs from the one near my home in the suburbs in several notable ways.

For one, the store seems busier in the first week of the month after public assistance funds arrive. Second, unlike the filled-to-the-brim shopping carts in more affluent neighborhoods, the carts in this store contain only a few items. The customers appear to exist in a one-to-two-day planning horizon, which speaks volumes about their sense of economic insecurity. Finally, the grocery store sells something I’ve never seen in my neighborhood’s grocery store—bulk bologna. That’s right, a big round vessel of that mysterious and cheap sandwich meat.

The holiday season is a time of merriment and celebration. We sing holiday carols about “the season to be jolly” and to “let your heart be light.” At the same time, we coexist with people who suffer economically. The real tragedy is the children who so often become victims of intergenerational poverty—the type of poverty that isn’t a result of a layoff, divorce or illness, but rather children who are subject to an environment of drug and alcohol abuse, teen pregnancy, crime, and physical and emotional abuse, and then never escape the pattern. The poverty and the abusive lifestyle is passed on, creating enormous personal and economic costs.

A virtuous society does better than this.

This month, United Way of Salt Lake will launch the Changing the Odds Campaign. It’s a multi-million-dollar effort to transform the lives and communities in our state that need it most. It’s a promise that every child, regardless of their circumstances, will have a better chance to succeed in school and life.          

The campaign will help Neighborhood Centers in schools, apartment complexes and other locations access educational programs, social services, health resources and much more. It’s one of many worthy ways to share charitable dollars this holiday season and help the Utah economy at the same time. Visit UW.ORG to give and learn more.

The holiday season is a time of giving. I think we should follow the wise counsel that a good friend shared with me: Let’s give, to get, and then give again.

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