What many commentators refer to as "The Great Recession" in the United States officially ended more than a year ago. But like people all over the world, a great many Americans are still struggling financially. One indication of just how bad things really are is the number of people who are still turning to charities for help.
There's been a steady stream of people all morning filing in and out of a warehouse in downtown Nashville. They are there to pick up Christmas presents for their children, presents they cannot afford to buy themselves. The Salvation Army charity provides the gifts for free through its Angel Tree program. Major Rob Vincent, the area commander, says he's seeing some new faces this year.
"For the first time, in their lives for some, they've had to look for help. They've had to make some hard decisions - making sure the bills were paid - so Christmas is going to have to be small or non-existent this year," Vincent explained.
Tia McCoy and her family of four are facing some of those hard choices. McCoy's husband lost his construction job two years ago when the market for new homes suddenly slowed to a crawl.
"We've been so behind on the bills, and sometimes it's hard just to have enough food in the house. If it wasn't for the Angel Tree and the people that volunteer their time here -- they don't get paid for this -- and it's because of them that our babies are going to have our babies are going to have a Christmas," McCoy said.
It'll be a very practical Christmas. While Angel Tree provides some toys, it concentrates more on the things children need most.
"For my daughter I asked for diapers, some wipes, just basic necessities," McCoy said. "For my son I asked for a new pair of shoes, a new coat, and maybe some learning toys."
A warehouse filled with more than 12,000 presents -- wrapped in protective black plastic -- means the McCoy children will not be the only ones with presents under the tree on Christmas morning. But the recession has had an impact on charitable donations, and that has left the Salvation Army struggling to meet the increased demand for charitable services. Major Vincent says the Nashville Command used to get just 500 calls a month for help .
"That number spiked to over 5,000 a month at times, during the hardest times, but it's leveled off. We get about 2,000 to 2,400 calls every month now -- for almost three years -- of people asking for help because they're struggling," Vincent said.
Charities nationwide are facing similar circumstances. Lewis Lavine, president of Tennessee's Center for Non-Profit Management, points to increased need coupled with the downturn in contributions.
"Nationally, according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, giving last year was down 11 percent," Lavine said. "In Nashville, for example, most of the social service agencies have seen their budgets reduced by 10 to 20 percent. So what that means is that they've cut back to their core mission, some have reduced staff, some have reduced benefits. All have tried to provide the level of services that they can, but it's been a struggle for them."
Major Vincent and Tia McCoy agree that one of those core missions is to simply remind struggling Americans that they're not alone.
"Letting them know that the community is caring about where they are and what they're going through right now; providing hope to these families on this holiday season," Vincent stated.
"There's always hope," added McCoy. "Even when we've been at our lowest, there's always been hope."
With the economy still limping along, American charities will likely be called on to provide still more of that hope next Christmas.