During the nation's countdown to Christmas this year, joyful bell-ringers are outnumbered by dour handwringers, whose response to hard times consists of statistics of jobless Americans and families evicted from their homes.
Unemployment rates and mortgage defaults are convenient measuring sticks for Americans' pain. But there are other signs of the times that cut even closer to the heart: homelessness and hunger.
For example, the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions (AGRM), surveying 19,000 homeless Americans in 114 local missions, reports that more than one-third of people experiencing homelessness on a given night are homeless for the first time in their lives.
Single Americans represent the largest population (86 percent of those surveyed) served by the missions, but women with children are the most frequently assisted family unit (52 percent of total families). Half of the homeless aided by the missions are white, while 43 percent are African-American or Hispanic.
Nearly one in five Americans experiencing homelessness reports being a victim of physical violence, an increase of 6 percent over last year.
"It's not uncommon for the stress of personal economic woes to trigger anger and aggressive behavior," says AGRM president John Ashmen. "Some public figures like to give the impression that government programs are curbing homelessness and hunger," he said, but "we certainly aren't seeing it."
As the recession wears on, Sam Dillon in The New York Times reports, "Millions of American schoolchildren are receiving free or low-cost meals for the first time, as their parents, many once solidly middle-class, have lost jobs or homes during the economic crisis, qualifying their families for the decades-old safety-net program."
Students receiving subsidized lunches rose to 21 million in the last school year, a 17 percent increase since 2006-07. The U.S. Department of Education reports that 52 percent of the nation's fourth-graders receive assistance from Department of Agriculture programs.
Schoolchildren in families making up to 130 percent of the poverty level ($29,055 for a family of four) are eligible for free school meals. Students in four-member households with income up to $41,348 qualify for subsidized 40-cent lunches.
In parts of the nation, subsidizing lunches fails to guarantee that children will get three meals a day. The Times reports that in Dallas, Newark, N.J., and Chicago, for example, 85 percent of students are eligible for subsidized meals. Most of their schools offer free breakfasts as well. Some, fearing that children would otherwise go to bed hungry, also serve their students a free supper.
It may not be miraculous loaves and fishes, but at least it's something real.
(David Yount's 15th book, "The Greatest Stories Ever Told," will appear in 2012. He answers readers at P.O. Box 2758, Woodbridge, VA 22193 and firstname.lastname@example.org.)