As we head toward the end of the year and into the holiday season, the nation's economy is beginning to look a little like Lake Lanier: full in the middle but a little rough around the edges.
The housing "bubble" created by too many questionable home loans has burst as adjustable-rate mortgages have gone up. That has left lenders holding the bag on thousands of properties destined for foreclosure. And worse, it has driven many families out of homes they can no longer afford.
Meanwhile, the rising cost of gasoline has led to higher costs of goods across the board, at a time when many families already are struggling. The Federal Reserve continues to juggle interest rates to try and keep inflation in check, but prices on many products and services are headed up nonetheless.
Meanwhile, here in Northeast Georgia, several stories have raised similar concerns. A few weeks ago, GB&T Bancshares announced it was being acquired by SunTrust. Earlier this month, Peachtree Doors announced it was shutting down its local plant and moving the operation to Wisconsin. The move will cost some 200 local workers their jobs. The jobless rate in Gainesville and Northeast Georgia has inched up a bit to 3.7 percent, though still below the state and national level of 4.7 percent.
For the most part, Georgia's economy has weathered much of the storm. Hall County, in particular, has a stronger real estate business than in many areas where home sales have bottomed out into a buyer's market. Home closings were down just 1 percent in Hall, compared to high double-digit drops in neighboring counties.
The diverse nature of our local economy -- not too many eggs in one basket, pardon the pun -- makes it easier to withstand slowdowns in specific industries without the entire local economy taking a major hit.
That's not to say folks around here aren't feeling it. Some in our area have lost jobs and their homes. So to say that the pinch hasn't been felt here is not fair to those who are struggling.
With the big Christmas spending season at hand and income tax filing just around the corner, the timing isn't so great for all this iffy economic news.
And there is another collateral victim to the economic slump: Charities. The holidays aren't just a time for buying, but a time for giving. Charitable donations generally increase this time of year as many folks seek to share their bounty with those less affluent.
But local nonprofit organizations are feeling the pinch. While they are receiving more requests for help from families facing hard times, they also are receiving less to give out.
"When you do have an economic downturn, demand for services goes up," said Jackie Wallace, president of United Way of Hall County. "But at the same time, many of the people who would normally donate to the United Way can no longer afford to give. In fact, often they become recipients of services themselves."
United Way has topped the two-thirds mark in donations toward its target of $2,070,000 during its annual fundraising drive.
The U.S. Marines' Toys for Tots campaign has received fewer donations in its annual drive. The local group hopes to put presents under the tree for 1,200 needy youngsters in our area this Christmas.
"I think the whole economy in general makes it difficult for people to give," said Dawn Koponen, who coordinates the program through the United Way of Hall County. "It's very important, because we want to make sure that every child has at least one toy underneath the tree on Christmas morning."
For those of us still doing well, it falls to help make up the shortfall in charitable giving this holiday. With fewer folks contributing and more asking for help, we should all be willing to dig a little deeper to keep local agencies in the black. It may be as simple as cutting back on an elaborate Christmas party - try having a potluck instead - or perhaps holding back on a gift or two to help a family fill its pantry with groceries.
Let's all remember that the season of giving doesn't just mean stocking up on items from the mall. It means extending our hands, and our wallets, generously to those whose holiday season won't be bright or merry without our help.
After all, that is, as we all know, the true meaning of Christmas.