Just a fine line divides haves and have-nots

I admit it, this year I ummed and ahhed about putting a present under the Kmart Wishing Tree.

Surely I'm not the first to point out the bleeding obvious?

My credit card's a shadow of its former self from all the exercise it's had recently, and it's not just from buying into the retail mania.

Times are tough, and they're about to get tougher; according to the Christmas message we received from our utility providers informing us of another hefty price increase next year. Ho, ho, hum, indeed.

So I wasn't surprised to read of there being a slump in charitable donations. And there are legitimate reasons why we're feeling decidedly less charitable. We've seen trusted organisations embroiled in allegations of physical and sexual abuse and homophobia and, others seemingly more interested in growing their brands than their client base.

Charity scams are as pervasive as ever (more than $90,000-worth were reported this year, according to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) and the rash of pop-up donor booths at shopping precincts only seem to invoke a fight or flight reflex.

The term ''donor fatigue'' hardly touches on how disheartened we've become. I wasn't surprised that charities were feeling the pinch, but I was deeply saddened, because as a long-time employee of the Salvation Army I know that there are at least half a million little precious reasons for us to keep donating this Christmas.

Of the 2.3 million living below the poverty line, 575,000 are children, according to the Australian Council of Social Service report released in November. This is where well-known charities, such as St Vincent de Paul, Sydney's Wesley Mission and, yes, the Salvation Army come into their own, offering a soft landing for those who fall the hardest.

This last year Vinnies provided more than $2.1 million worth of food vouchers for people in NSW. And at its Christmas supper, Sydney's Wesley Mission handed out more than 1150 food parcels and 381 wrapped gifts to needy children.

For those unmoved by such cold-hard figures, a new report released by The Exodus Foundation, another grassroots charity currently struggling, shows just how fine the line separating the haves from the have-nots has become.

The foundation, which provides meals and services to the underprivileged, has identified a new class of Sydneysider carrying more than their fair share of the financial burden. Between September and November Exodus recorded an unprecedented 24 per cent rise in the number of people seeking "urgent financial assistance" with basic needs, such as utility bills, rent, groceries and medical services.

Many had families to support, and some of these families relied on one breadwinner.

On our 1½ incomes my husband and I are pretty good at keeping our heads above water.

Yet I would hate to think how inexorably our lives would change if something were to happen, such as my husband losing his job, or either one of us or - God forbid - the kids being hospitalised.

If the nightmarish thought of having my sons waking up to a Christmas with little or no cheer gives me the chills, what must it be like for parents who live with the reality?

Now in its silver jubilee year, the Kmart Wishing Tree Appeal works with the Salvation Army to provide gifts for more than 500,000 families.

A week out from Christmas the appeal was still 360,000 gifts short of its 500,000 target (at the time of writing it had reached a tally of 267,014).

An 11th-hour rush of communal goodwill would further bridge that gap. After all, even with job security in question and household budgets squeezing us dry, it's not all Scrooge and doom, according to the latest Charities Aid Foundation World Giving Index 2012, which last week named Australia the "most charitable nation in the world".

In the end it wasn't entirely my decision whether or not to contribute to the Wishing Tree. My five-year-old broke away from me, zeroed in on the tree and randomly plucked off a card. We chose a gift for a boy aged about 12 ('tween boys consistently miss out, according to the Salvos), wrote our names on the card and placed them both under the tree.

Yes, it takes a village to raise a child, but judging from the look on my little boy's face a box of City Lego can sure raise a smile.

Jen Vuk is a freelance writer.



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