A vicious Catch 22 is at work during these hard economic times.

With layoffs and foreclosures up and with income and retirement accounts down, more people than ever need help some for the first time in their lives.

At the same time government agencies, which in better times can provide a "safety net" for those in need, are in trouble themselves.

Deficits and tight budgets are curtailing some aid programs and eliminating others.

Also, many previous donors to Tuolumne and Calaveras county food banks and other charities are finding their household budgets will no longer allow it.

When the need is peaking, sadly, the resources to meet it are bottoming out.

As the holidays approach, things are looking particularly grim.

Adult demand at the Sonora-based Interfaith Community Social Services, which provides food and used clothing to those in need, has risen nearly 50 percent in the past six years.

The Amador-Tuolumne Community Action Agency's Jamestown food bank last year reported an 88 percent increase in clients over the previous three years.

The HRC Food Bank in San Andreas, said Director Billie Westernoff, has in the past year, seen a 73 percent increase in families asking for aid.

Even a year ago, when the housing crisis was just beginning, former HRC food bank donors were becoming clients.

And now, said Westernoff, "People are coming in in tears. They're embarrassed."

Such is the reality of 2008 in the Mother Lode.

It is a painful time for our communities, which for years have taken pride in their ability to respond to crisis, help the least fortunate among us and raise money for a variety of worthwhile causes ranging from the relocation of an historic jail to original home in Jamestown to keeping Meals on Wheels programs rolling.

In these tough times, however, tough choices must be a made.

A few among us, the best off financially, can still afford to be as generous as they always have been. Their kindness and contributions are much appreciated.

For most, however, charitable giving must be weighed against other elements of dwindling budgets, and decisions must be made:

Will we go out to eat less, forgo nights at the movies or postpone buying that new car or big-screen TV, and instead help others for whom such choices aren't even options? Or should we choose among charities, giving only to those whose services we think are most crucial?

These are questions each citizen and each family must answer for themselves.

Those who see their way clear to giving, however, should know this: Seldom has there been a time when their help is as desperately needed or when it would be appreciated so much.

For just as demand for food, clothing and other services have risen, community donations have dropped. Interfaith, for instance, reports that expenses have exceeded revenue by $18,000. "People are giving a lot less," said Leo Sandoval, the agency's deputy director and treasurer.

But what if, despite these needs, your budget is too tight?

Then you might give something just as important as cash: your time.

Nonprofit and charitable organizations throughout the Mother Lode need volunteers, whose work is just as crucial to their success. So check The Union Democrat's 2008-09 Know It All's list of volunteer opportunities or contact your favorite charity or nonprofit organization and make the call to offer to be a volunteer.

Your timing will be perfect.