Iowa City Programs to Help Aid Low-Income Families During the Holidays

Traditionally the holidays are a time for giving. However, it can also be a financially straining time for many individuals and families.

By: Stefanie Schultz

As the first snowfall blankets the city, it’s easy to get caught up in the holiday spirit. Twinkling Christmas lights illuminate homes and jolly Santa Claus greets children with a cheery ho-ho-ho. Christmas is here. As many parents neatly wrap and place gifts under the tree, it is easy to forget the families who cannot provide an abundant Christmas for their family.

Since the 2008 flood and the economic recession, some Johnson County residents have endured financial hardships. According to an assessment compiled by the Iowa Policy Project, in 2008, 6 percent of Johnson County were recorded as living in poverty. The assessment also shows that poverty rates for children living in poverty has risen by 40 percent between 2000 and 2008.

The increase in poverty rates has increased financial advisers and non-profit organizations assistance for struggling families.

Holiday Finances

Despite a local increase in poverty rates, a November 2010 Gallup Poll reported that consumer spending during Thanksgiving is up from 2009. Over the three days following Thanksgiving, self-reported daily consumer spending in stores and online averaged $92 per day. Consumer spending is up from an average of $83 in 2009.

An additional Gallup Poll reported that Americans predicted they will spend an average of $714 on Christmas gifts this holiday season. This exceeds the $683 consumers forecasted in November of 2009. According to the Gallup Poll if consumer’s predictions remain valid through December, it would result in a two percent year-over-year increase in holiday sales.

Throughout the economic recession financial experts are helping individuals and families to reverse the financial issues. Senior Regional Manager of Primerca Financial Corporation, Ron Petrucci, works with families to educate them about financial products so they can get themselves and their families to their financial goals. He recommends that families carefully create and follow a budget in order to provide presents for their family.

“A budget is critical to making money go as far as it can. One mistake that everyone makes is carrying extra cash on them. Generally anyone that carries extra money will spend extra. Do your budget but only put money you absolutely need in your pocket,” said Petrucci.

Petrucci said that a big mistake that families, especially low-income families make, is spending money they don’t have.

“Once [low-income families] start spending money they don’t have on presents, they start paying things like utilities and groceries with credit cards. That’s when people can get into trouble,” said Petrucci.

Local Holiday Efforts

Locally some organizations are providing aid for families during the holiday season. The Parkview Church in Iowa City offers a program called “The Spot Christmas Store.” It is a church run program, located in Iowa City, that provides Christmas presents for low-income Johnson County families.

In its third year, “The Spot Christmas Store” supplies toys to at-risk youth. Parkview Church members purchase and donate gifts for the store. Gifts are to be donated with the price tags attached to the church in the beginning of December. Gifts are tagged as either boy or girl and are separated into three different categories; toddler and infant, child, and teenager, said Doug Fern, Pastor of Compassionate Ministries.

Holiday and birthday bags are provided for low-income families in Johnson County. Photo by: Stefanie Schultz

Low-income parents then purchase these gifts from the store at a reduced cost. Many of the gifts are do not exceed five dollars. Parents are allowed to spend up to 15 dollars.

“Fifteen dollars may not seem like much, however it ends up being about the equivalent of 150 dollars at a store,” said Fern.

Children are not allowed in “the Spot Christmas Store” because the church tries to provide parents with the ability to purchase their own gifts and to give them to their children themselves.

“Other holiday programs are great, but sometimes parents can lose their dignity in the process,” said Fern.

Fern describes the Christmas store as a succesful program.

“We [the Parkview Church] weren’t expecting that the program would serve a large portion of the Hispanic community,” said Fern.

Some holiday programs require a social security number and government identification. “We cut all that out,” said Fern.

“The Spot Christmas Store” begins its holiday season in November.

“Beginning in November I get calls from school districts who participated in the past or from individuals who have heard about the program and want in invitation. Unfortunately, we can only do how much people participate,” said Fern.

Last year the “Christmas Spot Store,” served 86 families.

“It’s great because parents can do the shopping for entire family,” said Fern.

Remembering the Importance of Christmas

Parkview Church helps families have a joyful holiday. However, we know that helping struggling families and individuals can be difficult.

“You can help someone in the wrong way. Just throwing money at someone isn’t always the right answer. Sometimes we have to say no for various reasons. It isn’t always a fun process,” said Fern.

Although Fern fully supports the program, he emphasizes the church does not want to promote extreme materialistic importance regarding the holidays.

“During the holiday season people’s needs become heightened. These needs aren’t necessarily different during the rest of the year, they are simply more apparent. We get so wrapped up in the material aspect of Christmas and we [the Parkview Church] try to balance that,” said Fern.

Still, Fern said that Parkview Church tries to promote the ‘real’ meaning behind the holiday season and tries to downplay the materialistic “meanings.”

“It’s a battle because are we promoting that you need to have toys and material things to have a nice Christmas? Families really appreciate it but to really put things in perspective, that’s the challenge,” said Fern.

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