SPARTANBURG, S.C. — The sputtering economy, exacerbated by high fuel prices and escalating home mortgage payments, may be the hot story of this political season. But it is also a chilling reality for many people who were barely able to support their families when economic times were good.

According to a July survey of 54 of its local agencies, Alexandria, Va.-based Catholic Charities USA has found an 85% increase in the number of people nationwide who are seeking help with paying utility bills.

?More and more people have to choose between putting food on the table, paying their utility bills, or making their rent or mortgage payment,? said Father Larry Snyder, president of Catholic Charities USA.

Catholics across the country have leaped into the breach, rendering assistance with their own sacrifices as individuals and as groups. An example of both is the Polydeck Screen Corp., a South Carolina company of 170 employees that is owned and operated by a Catholic, Peter Freissle.

Each of the workers at this international company, from the $12-an-hour factory floor worker to the six-figure senior engineer, agrees with a company ?core values? statement that says, in part, ?We strive to honor God in all we do,? according to Freissle. The company has a Caring Committee, independent of management, which is funded by a share of the company profits and to which employees volunteer hours.

The committee decides how to spend both: The workers repair houses for poor people in the community, work in soup kitchens on weekends and contribute to medical expenses for the sick, among other outreach efforts. Harold Miller, a retired food service worker, said that Polydeck employees renovated his house from top to bottom, including a new roof and kitchen ? all at no cost to him.

?Peter Freissle is a good and decent employer,? Miller said.

With the economic pinch affecting the employees themselves, Polydeck does not ignore its own. For the July 4 break, for instance, the committee gave all employees gasoline vouchers.

For some of the working poor, their current needs are even more basic than needing help at the pump ? they need food. Jason Christensen, executive director of Catholic Charities in Colorado Springs, Colo., saw a major jump in demand this spring and summer.

?Our soup kitchen is now serving 650 meals a day, as opposed to 450 meals a day,? Christensen said.

Last year, a grocery chain named Wegman?s, owned by a Catholic family, gave away more than 16 million pounds of food from its 71 stores in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia; it was an all-time record.

?We?ve been doing this for many, many years,? said Jo Natale of Wegman?s. ?This is perfectly good and wholesome food that we can no longer sell for one reason or another. We?re hearing of increased demand from all the food banks we donate to.?

The current hard times apparently reflect the increase in need by those who might be called the lower-middle class, families that work but cannot seem to keep up with rising costs. For the real poor, the desperately needy, the economy has little effect on their hardscrabble lives.

At St. Crispin Friary in the South Bronx section of New York City, for instance, the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal and their volunteers ?have been working to the max? for a long time now, according to Father Bernard Murphy, superior. They have seen no large increase in the homeless population they serve, nor in their free medical clinic, food distribution or kids-at-risk programs ? despite the recent run-up in gasoline costs.

?These people have experienced very difficult situations and need assistance getting out,? Father Murphy said. ?They can?t get much lower.?

William Muller works with mentally handicapped poor people on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He has spent his days and nights helping street schizophrenics since 1972.

?The economic times will drive some people into homelessness,? Muller said. ?Gas and food prices are out of control.?

?Muller takes care of about 16 schizophrenic men at a time, getting them on the federal disability rolls, taking them to get their mail and showers at St. Francis Church on 31st Street, putting them up at what he calls cubicle-style hotels (?We used to call them flop houses?), escorting them to a soup kitchen for meals and to get their clothes washed, and to medical clinics for treatment. He stays with them during the week and lives on about $9,000 a year in donations.

?Once I saw the face of Christ in them,? he said, ?I can no longer view them as just homeless.?

Paul Barra is based in

Reidville, South Carolina.