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Hard Times--And How You Can Help

The economists tell us that the recession is over or, at least, nearly over.  A California woman named Claudia Bruce might not agree:

Claudia Bruce was laid off from her well-paying job 13 months ago after the economy fell. Now, Bruce is among a growing number of people who, in what seemed like an instant, went from middle class incomes to relying on public assistance.

Second Harvest Food Bank of Santa Clara and San Mateo counties fed a record-breaking 272,000 people in November. That 16 percent increase from the same time last year denotes a concerning trend for the 300 or so local agencies distributing its food. 

At Bruce's last job, she made about $70,000 a year managing an office for a telecommunications startup in Redwood Shores. In October 2008, the company cuts its staff in half and let Bruce go.

She now receives $950 in unemployment benefits every two weeks. Up until now she's been able to juggle her monthly expenses--$1,550 plus utilities for her two-bedroom apartment, $130 cell phone bill, $105 for cable and Internet, as well as minimum credit card payments.

But Bruce started getting food from local food banks in January when her unemployment checks were delayed because of high demand.

"I sort of feel bad for all the people who are in the same boat as me," Bruce said. "It brought home how serious and far-reaching it is."

That article appeared in the San Mateo County Times. But it could have appeared in any number of outlets from across the country. And it could have focused on people in far worse condition than Bruce. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities recently noted, plummeting tax receipts have wrecked state budgets, forcing them to cut back on social services just at the time when they are most needed:

In states facing budget gaps, the consequences are severe in many cases--for residents as well as the economy. As the 2009 fiscal year ended and states planned for 2010, budget difficulties have led at least 43 states to reduce services to their residents, including some of their most vulnerable families and individuals... If revenue declines persist as expected in many states, additional spending and service cuts are likely.

There's a clear policy message here: Now is not the time to start a crash course in budget balancing. Just as the economy still needs stimulus, individuals and families still need assistance.

But perhaps there's a personal message here, as well. If you're among those people making end-of-year charitable contributions, you might consider supporting an institution or organization addressing some of these unmet needs. And if you don't know of any such charities, here are a few I've encountered over the years, while reporting on health care and other public policy issues.

As far as I know, all of these are reputable non-profits, to which contributions are tax-deductible. But you should check them out for yourselves--and, while you're at it, get to know a little more about the work they do.

Clinica Monsenor Oscar A. Romero (Los Angeles, CA)

Eisner Pediatric and Family Center (Los Angeles, CA)

First Step (Plymouth, MI)

Greater Boston Food Bank (Boston, MA)

The Hope Clinic (Chelsea, MI)

Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation (Baton Rouge and New Orleans, LA)

Matthew Walker Comprehensive Health Center (Nashville, TN)

St. John's Well Child and Family Center (Los Angeles, CA)

Venice Family Clinic (Venice, CA)

Women in Distress of Broward County (Fort Lauderdale, FL)

Update: A few readers suggested Bruce wasn't in such bad shape, if she could afford a cell phone and internet service. I'm not sure I agree: It's hard to find work, given her apparent level of experience, without either of those. Either way, though, there are plenty of people doing far worse. So I added a reference to that effect.

Follow Jonathan Cohn on Twitter: @jcohntnr