Forget buying a ton of gifts. A week before Thanksgiving, the holidays are shaping up as a season of no frills.
And for some, the joy of family time and gift-giving has been replaced this year by a quest for basic necessities as more jobs are lost and unemployment benefits start to expire.
Michigan, with one of the highest unemployment rates in the nation at 14.8 percent in September, has a food crisis going into the holiday season.
"We have people coming to the food bank who said they were donating to us last year, but who are now out of work and in need themselves," said Alison Bono, who coordinates marketing for the Mid-Michigan Food Bank in Lansing.
She said that close to 1,000 people stand in line for produce handouts each week as they seek to supplement food stamps with fresh fruits and vegetables.
A little more than week before Thanksgiving, food bank supplies that used to be enough to last for six to eight weeks are now down to 10 days, said Ms. Bono, who calls the current seasonal needs extreme.
Some corporations and businesses, she said, are canceling holiday celebrations and donating the money used for parties to help charity groups.
They are running ads in the local newspapers' holiday supplement on Sunday with envelopes for donations as the situation turns ever more dire.
"We have, compared to last year, 15 percent more people looking for food. They are frantic, and many of them are people who have never had to apply for food stamps or seek assistance, but whose unemployment benefits have run out. ... We're calling this season a crisis of catastrophic proportions."
In certain areas across the nation, the Salvation Army, seriously hard-hit for money this year, has posted its traditional bell ringers and red kettles early in an effort to respond to what it sees as a historic need this holiday season.
"Many communities, particularly heavily in the Midwest, started kettle campaigns on Nov. 1, which is the earliest start we have ever seen," said George Hood, the national community relations secretary for the Salvation Army, which this year allows donors to give at cyber-kettles online. "This is obviously a reaction to the economy and slow periods we have seen since the summer."
Demand for services, Mr. Hood said, "has just gone through the roof."
"We are getting reports of a 300 [percent to] 600 percent increase in some communities, and it's frightening," he said. "The demand for short-term emergency care -- for food, shelter, clothing, utility assistance and rent support -- it's just really rough out there. This is a very nervous time."
Even at minimum wage, manning the Salvation Army's collection kettles -- up to 25,000 nationwide on busy days -- for charity is looking like solid seasonal work for many, with unemployment numbers nationwide hovering at more than 10 percent heading into Thanksgiving.
In certain hard-hit states, however, those numbers are even higher -- Florida (11.2 percent), California (12 percent) and Nevada (13.5 percent), according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Despite growing demand for help, just 38 percent of Americans said they would be giving to charity this holiday season, according to a poll released this month by Harris Interactive. That figure represents a significant drop from last year, when 49 percent of U.S. adults said they would be contributing to the less fortunate. The Chronicle of Philanthropy, which tracks giving, said U.S. fundraising groups expected, on average, a 9 percent dip in income this year, according to Associated Press reports.
Acknowledging the economic crisis, Ford Field and the MAC football conference are offering 10,000 free tickets to the college championship game, set for Dec. 4 in Detroit, to those who can show proof of unemployment. The free football game seats also will be given to members of the military and union workers who have been hard-hit by the manufacturing crisis in the state.
As retailers strategize and brace for what could be the darkest of Black Fridays, many consumers may be planning popcorn tinsel for the tree and homemade gifts like cookies as they feel the lingering pinch of the recession, which has some with a heart for giving feeling more like the venerable Grinch.
Economists forecast that consumers will spend about $740 on average for gifts this season, down from $801 reported by the Gallup organization in the same period for 2008.
The National Retail Federation's annual survey of consumer intentions and actions found a slightly lower spending figure of nearly $683, on average, which they note marks a 3.2 percent drop over 2008.
"This holiday season will be a bit of a dance between retailers and shoppers, with each group feeling the other out to understand how things have changed and how they must adapt," NRF President Tracy Mullin said in a statement announcing the association's holiday trend report.
The economy, said the NRF, is expected to impact two-thirds of U.S. families this season, with spending on family members expected to fall 2 percent and gifts for friends and co-workers dropping off in double digits.
More than a third of consumers plan to purchase more practical gifts, with 17 percent buying joint gifts for children and parents and 16.7 percent planning to make their own gifts. More than 28 percent of Americans say the down economy will keep them from traveling or cause them to travel less during the 2009 holiday season, according to the NRF's study.
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