A good time to give

It is a cruel paradox that at times like these — when the lingering recession, unemployment and foreclosure crisis have stretched more and more families to the brink — the donations to the very charities that can help them make it through begin to dry up as well. At the United Way of Central Maryland, a good barometer for charitable giving in the region, donations dropped by 6 percent to 8 percent in each of the last two years, and amid a tentative recovery, they are expected to grow by just 1 percent this year.

The need, on the other hand, is growing exponentially. The United Way operates a call center to connect those in distress with charitable and government services; by dialing 211, callers can be connected with thousands of potential programs. Call volume has gone up tremendously, particularly in the Baltimore suburbs. Calls from Anne Arundel County are up 26 percent, and in Baltimore County they rose 32 percent. Volume is up 27 percent in Harford County, 20 percent in Carroll County, and 11 percent in Howard County.

That mirrors statistics released recently by the Census Bureau that show poverty holding stable in the city during the last decade at about 20.2 percent but rising in the suburbs, particularly Baltimore County, where it has increased from 6.5 percent to 8 percent.

A sour economy combined with cutbacks in government assistance programs have pushed the need for help from local charities to near-record levels. "The safety net for the poor and most vulnerable is stretched," says Mark S. Furst, president and chief executive officer of United Way of Maryland.

While there is pain in the region, there is also plenty. The same Census Bureau survey that chronicled the rise in suburban Baltimore poverty also found that Maryland, once again, is the nation's wealthiest state, with a median household income of $69,475.

Poverty is a year-round problem. But this season of sharing is an opportune time for Marylanders who are doing well to lend a helping hand to those who are struggling.