Today I was given a quick poll asking how much Americans spend each year on Christmas: $10B, $450B, or $620B. Mathematician that I am, I had to figure out what the numbers worked out to per person.
With a population of about 309 million, $10B would average $30 each, which is clearly low. But the next higher choice pushes the average up to $1450—double the $715 Gallup published for 2010 average spending. Even that last figure would put a family of 4 at nearly $3000 for Christmas spending. Really? I make a pretty good living, but even adding up decorations, parties, extra baking, gifts, etc., we don’t reach that. I don’t see how a typical American household—with significantly less income—could. So, without seeing exactly what is meant by “Christmas spending” I must admit to some skepticism regarding the numeric choices. Does that include all meals eaten out, or just the “extra” ones that we might have eaten at home during a different season? Does it include travel expenses? Does it include all consumer spending, some of which would have taken place during any other time of the year? And so on.
The real point of the poll, however, was that Americans simply spend too much on Christmas and should, instead, redirect our money to charities that benefit the third world. So what would happen if we spent significantly less? I’m not advocating rampantly selfish consumerism, but there’s a flip side to this coin. Every dollar taken out of the economy has a ripple effect. Stay home instead of flying to spend the holidays with relatives? Lay off a flight attendant. Stick with last year’s Christmas dress? Put a garment worker in Mexico or Central America out of work. Skip the new MP3 player? Cut the pay of a factory employee in Asia. It’s a complicated global market. Shifting money out of it—even for well-run, legitimate charities—certainly benefits some, but inevitably harms others.
The sad truth is that the very real problems in most third world areas can’t be solved by simple charity. We’ve spent billions on foreign aid (private and governmental) to Africa alone, with relatively little improvement in the horrid plight of its people. Each year I hear the same heartbreaking stories of rampant hunger and disease that were told by missionaries when I was a kid. Contrast that to Asia where, over the last few decades, economic development has raised the standard of living and increased individual freedom even in places like Vietnam and China. Perfect? No, but greatly improved. The situation on the dark continent isn’t likely to get better until they reform or replace their incredibly corrupt governments, which are far too often propped up or enabled by…our aid and charity. That’s not my own analysis. It came straight from the director of a Christian African business organization—born in central Africa—who spoke at Central Christian Church (Mesa, AZ) a couple years ago making the case that Americans should actually reduce our charitable contributions to the continent and replace them with economic activity and increased direct pressure on governments to reform. That runs against our sense of Christian charitable responsibility, but he made some very good points. In many ways our charity perpetuates their poverty.
All that said, my wife & I support Samaritan’s Purse, Salvation Army/Angel Tree, and World Vision—and encourage others to give generously. Do your homework and choose well-run charities that have a record of real impact. We like these because the first two have the dual benefit of boosting the consumer market while the last lets us help provide sustainable long-term economic assistance in the form of livestock. (Bunnies ain’t just cute. They’re incredibly tasty and reproduce like, well, rabbits.) Most importantly, all three work hard to share Christ with a desperately lost world—the change they really need most.
Consumption isn’t all bad; charity isn’t all good. It may seem counterintuitive, but as in all things, balance and wisdom are required. Keep Christ in the center of your Christmas and the question will become moot.
[Thanks to Kurtis Strunk, Youth Pastor at Mesa (AZ) First Church of the Nazarene for posting the poll via Excess for Africa. Have a teen in the area? Check out ROC Student Ministries.]