How bad are things getting?
The United Way saw a 68-percent increase during the past year in the number of calls for basic needs such as food, shelter, and warm clothes.
31.1 million people received food stamps in November, an increase of 13 percent from a year earlier.
In Arizona, there's been a 100-percent increase in the number of people seeking social services from the state.
In Contra Costa, California, 40,000 families applied for 350 available affordable-housing vouchers.
If, as it now seems likely, unemployment hits 9 percent, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates the number of Americans driven into poverty will rise by 7 to 10 million -- on top of the 37.3 million currently living below the poverty line (and while that number is the latest from the Census Bureau, it's from 2007, before the worst of the downturn).
Making matters worse -- much worse -- is the fact that the growing need is being met by a decrease in government programs and charitable services.
18 states cut their welfare rolls last year.
The number of families receiving government financial assistance is at a 40-year low.
In South Carolina, low-income women under 40 with breast or cervical cancer have had their treatment cut.
In Nevada, the state's largest public hospital has stopped providing outpatient oncology services.
In Arizona, programs to prevent child abuse and lower the number of children in foster care were slashed.
In Florida, home services for poor seniors are on the budget chopping block.
In Utah, 20,000 poor people face being removed from the state's primary care health network.
And more cutbacks like these seem inevitable as 44 states are facing budget shortfalls over the next two years.
"The scale of this is unprecedented," AARP Vice President Elaine Ryan told the Los Angeles Times. Ryan says that in her nearly 30 years of working on health policy issues, "I really have never seen anything like this."
Meanwhile, over half of the nation's charitable organizations saw a decrease in donations in the final quarter of 2008, normally the time of the year when charities receive the majority of their annual contributions.
This brutal combination of rising need and lowered services has led to a growing sense of anxiety, uncertainty, and fear.
"The first thing we see in times like this," Los Angeles Police Chief Bill Bratton told me, "is a rise in domestic violence."
Adding to the volatility, gun ownership is on the rise. According to FBI data, gun sales in February 2009 were 23 percent higher than February 2008.
A recent study by the National Domestic Violence Hotline found that 54 percent of those calling the hotline had experienced a change in their family's financial situation in the past year.
"Domestic violence is about power and control," says a spokesperson for the hotline. "If you lose control in one area of your life, like losing your job, you may want to exert more control in another area of your life, like at home."
Even though there has not been a spike in other types of crime, criminologists say there is usually a one-year delay between economic downturns and a rise in crime. Not good news when juxtaposed with a new report that found 63 percent of police agencies across the country are facing budget cuts.
You can see America's already-frayed safety net coming apart, strand by strand.
That is why it is so urgent to buttress the government programs and charitable groups struggling to provide resources to the growing pool of those in need. Service, volunteerism, and giving are absolutely central to our recovery as a nation -- not questions of noblesse oblige.
As Richard Stengel, managing editor of Time magazine, said when he testified to the House Education and Labor Committee: "Service is in our DNA as a nation and as a people."
Indeed, while we are trying to move the economy to full capacity through the stimulus package, bailouts, etc., we also need to make sure that our communities are operating at full capacity. Our full capacity of giving. Our full capacity of service. Our full capacity of compassion.
That's why the passage of President Obama's plan to expand service in America should be a Congressional priority. The Serve America Act, introduced by Ted Kennedy and Orrin Hatch, is scheduled to come up for debate this month in the Senate, while House leaders are working to produce a matching bill. The legislation would increase the number of full-time service positions (based on the AmeriCorps model) from 75,000 to 250,000.
These positions have an exponential impact on the recruitment of unpaid volunteers. In 2008, 75,000 AmeriCorps members mobilized and led 2.2 million community volunteers.
And the demand is growing. Teach for America, for instance, this year expects to receive 37,000 applications for 5,000 positions.
The pay-off is remarkable. For example, of the 230,000 special needs children mentored by 30,000 Senior Corps "Foster Grandparents" last year, 81 percent showed improved academic performance, 90 percent showed improved self-image, and 59 percent reported a reduction in risky behavior. And students working with an Experience Corps tutor did 40 percent better than students without tutors. Plus, schools with Experience Corps programs had 50 percent fewer suspensions than schools without Experience Corps.
Writing about the housing meltdown, I said that foreclosures are "a gateway calamity: every foreclosure is a crisis that begets a whole other set of crises. Someone loses his or her home. It sits vacant. Surrounding home values drop. Others move out. Squatters move in. Crime goes up. Tax revenues plummet, taking school budgets down with them."
Volunteering and service are the other side of the coin. They are a gateway opportunity: not only do they meet a pressing need, they allow us to expand the boundaries of our caring beyond ourselves -- the reverberations are felt throughout our communities.
And there is the additional psychological advantage for those who've lost jobs of using their skills to help others while they are dealing with their own harsh economic realities.
As America's Misery Index soars, so must our Empathy Index.