Christmas is a time of wonder. Wondering what presents to buy for our relatives, for instance. We search high and low for just the right ones - including gifts that distant family can use, that fit rather than clash with their tastes.
But our good intentions don't always lead to the best selections. Shopping for relatives we see only every couple of years can produce gifts that end up in the back of a closet, if not on eBay.
If only we'd seen Uncle Alfred in his regular attire, we'd know the expensive tie we got him was way too bright and busy. If only we'd been inside Cousin Meg's home, we'd have known her gas fireplace didn't require that poker we picked out. And if only we'd known Vince was a vegetarian, we could have skipped that gift card from a steakhouse chain.
Getting to know somebody makes it much easier to avoid those "Oh, you shouldn't have" moments.
The principle also applies on a higher plane: Giving to those living in poverty. The better we know people as individuals, the better we can understand what they need.
Americans in their teens and 20s often express compassion for the poor, the homeless and others in need they see all around. But when they consider exactly how to help, it can get complicated and confusing. No wonder the young tend to look to Washington, D.C., for solutions. They've grown up in an America where the federal government seems to be the source of big, decisive responses.
But over the long run, federal programs rarely provide effective help to those caught in poverty and dependency.
The nation has spent $15.9 trillion on means-tested welfare programs in the 45 years since President Lyndon B. Johnson famously declared war on poverty. After adjusting for inflation, welfare spending today is 13 times higher than in 1965, my colleague Robert Rector found. President Obama has put it on track to cost taxpayers $10.3 trillion over the next 10 years.
Spending on welfare programs has climbed faster than on Social Security, Medicare, education and defense. Yet, the Census Bureau reports, a record 3.7 million Americans fell into poverty in 2009.
We need better answers. And that's the challenge the Heritage Foundation took up when we developed "Seek Social Justice," a DVD-based curriculum for small groups that was released this month by LifeWay, a major provider of Christian resources and services.
From Jesuit high schools to evangelical colleges and church groups, we've found an eager audience among young people with a passion to serve others. Six video lessons and a study guide introduce workers and beneficiaries of nongovernmental programs in places such as Dallas and Leesburg, Fla.
Often, what first looks like material need is really the breakdown of key relationships, as when a child's father is not around. No two individuals are the same. We come from diverse backgrounds and circumstances. We have different stories, different gifts.
Efforts to address poverty, then, should do justice to the particular people in need. We're likely to find the most transformative assistance on the ground floor, so to speak, where face-to-face relationships thrive. Family, friends, neighbors, members of our churches and other volunteers can discern what an individual needs better than a distant bureaucrat ever could.
"Street saints," as author Barbara Elliott calls them, can diagnose the habits of the drug addict who can't hold down a job. These street saints can determine which relationships need to be restored in the life of the freed convict. Their knowledge and compassion produces help that makes a lasting difference.
Take Michael, who already was enrolled in a Nashville, Tenn., program called Men of Valor when he was released from prison last year. Staff and volunteers viewed and related to him as more than an ex-con.
"They love what they do for you and they do it out of the goodness of their heart," Michael says.
Folks at Men of Valor discovered what was broken, including his relationship with a 15-year-old daughter.
"Without them I would run back out to the same thing that I came in from," Michael says. "They've helped me try and contact my daughter, and that is something nobody has ever tried to help me do."
Rudy Carrasco, who runs a ministry center in Pasadena, Calif., says our relationships form invisible concentric circles: Those who know us best inhabit the circle nearest the center. The next circle consists of others we know less well, though they may live across the street or sit near us at church. Eventually, we reach government employees, to whom we may be only a number.
"The further away you get from the people who know the problem," Mr. Carrasco says, "the less effective you're going to be."
Efforts that encourage face-to-face engagement - live-in training for drug and alcohol abusers, for example - carry the most promise. Staging marches and sending money have their place, but the most powerful way to overcome poverty and social breakdown is by pursuing authentic relationships.
This Christmas, pause to consider what our shopping lists say about larger questions of what it takes for our fellow man to thrive and prosper.
We're more likely to give appropriate gifts to those we know best. So shouldn't we care for others in ways that value personal knowledge of their need - and hold the most promise of meeting that need?
There's a good New Year's resolution in the answer.
c Ryan Messmore, lead writer of "Seek Social Justice," is the William E. Simon fellow in religion and a free society at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Washington Times