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When giving really counts

November 27, 2005

YOU CAN'T FAULT AMERICAN generosity over the last year. The Asian tsunami of December 2004 drew $1.6 billion in private U.S. donations. Americans dug down even deeper in late August when Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, giving $2.7 billion in relief for Gulf Coast hurricane victims.

At the same time, through the first three quarters of the year, they kept up their usual donation levels to U.S. charities, according to GuideStar, an organization that tracks charitable giving. That's a continuation of a trend that started after 9/11. The horror of the attacks seemed to drive home the point that extraordinary times call for extraordinary charity.

Yet just as the traditional giving season begins along with the holiday shopping season, signs of donor fatigue are showing. A year ago, the death toll of 87,000 in the Pakistani earthquake would have seemed unfathomable. That, of course, was before the tsunami killed more than 200,000 people. That level of shock cannot be sustained, so it's not surprising that Americans have given a more modest $61 million for quake relief. That's about 4% of what they gave for tsunami victims, according to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

Many domestic charities are expecting lower donations in this fourth quarter. In Southern California, food banks are already reporting a dramatic drop in stocks. In part that's because surplus food has been diverted to hurricane victims, and in part it's because food companies are more efficient and have less surplus food to donate. But in part it's because people can barely imagine that it's time to give again.

Donors can rightly complain that the government wastes money on bad policy -- money that could be used to help the poor. They can justifiably point out that gas prices have made dents in many a household budget. But that doesn't make a local parent who has lost a job any more able to feed his or her children. And a hungry person in Los Angeles is just as hungry as one who fled New Orleans. Poverty here at home and across the country hasn't gone away because there was a tsunami and a hurricane.

Giving is tiring, and it never seems to end. And yet, knowing that there is true hunger and want in their midst, most Americans who have given and given will surely open up and give again.

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