The jingle of the Salvation Army bell and the mailbox pleas of charities are going unanswered in many parts of the country this Christmas season as a slumping economy puts a pinch on giving, officials say.

"We have nearly a million more applicants (for help) this Christmas than last. That is a dramatic impact on the work we will have to do," said Leon Ferraez, communications director for the Salvation Army."We usually have around a 10 to 12 percent increase in income over the previous year. This year it is around 8 percent over last year. We really have a shortfall," he said.

"If we have a 20 percent increase in demand and only an 8 percent increase in contributions, we are very concerned about what's going to happen," he added, saying the economy is largely to blame for the problems.

Last year between Thanksgiving and Christmas the Salvation Army raised $130 million - $90 million from mail solicitations and $40 million from bellringer-manned kettles. It helped nearly 6.5 million people with eveything from rent and utility bill assistance to food.

This year there are in excess of 900,000 more applications for help, Ferraez said.

Across the country welfare rolls are swelling. Illinois officials reported a 5 percent increase in caseloads in the aid to families with dependent children program, and a 7 percent jump in food stamp cases.

Larger increases have been reported in New England, the southwest and elsewhere.

The pinch is worse in some parts of the country than in others.

The American Lung Association, which annually conducts a Christmas Seal drive through the mail, reported a fall-off in giving nationally.

But John Kirkwood, executive director of the Chicago Lung Association, told Reuters the situation in his region appears to be improving after a shakey start.

The initial solicitation for Chrismtas Seals in the Chicago area, he said, went out in October at a time when fear of war in the Persian Gulf, uncertainty about the federal budget and recession jitters were weighing heavily on people's minds.