It's common, around this time of year, to hear people grumble about Christmas being "too commercial." They have a point, of course. It's easy to get so caught up in the buying frenzy that we forget why we celebrate Christmas in the first place. But let's not sell ourselves short. The observance of Jesus' birth also inspires countless acts of kindness and generosity.
In communities nationwide, Americans volunteer their time and talents to run food banks, clothing drives and other charitable activities. Working in many cases through churches and other faith-based groups, they reach out to those in need. And they do it in large numbers. As former Attorney General John Ashcroft once noted, for every federal worker in social services, six private individuals are working in communities on behalf of the needy.
There's nothing new in this. Such selflessness has long been a part of the American character. Alexis de Tocqueville, the great French writer who toured America in the early 1800s, observed it firsthand. In Democracy in America, he wrote, "The Americans' ... regard for themselves, constantly prompts them to assist one another and inclines them willingly to sacrifice a portion of their time and property for the welfare of others." Throughout most of our nation's history, it has been not the government, but privately run hospitals, orphanages, missions, churches and civic groups that have assisted the destitute and the downtrodden.
Then, as now, Americans didn't do it for pay. They did it because it's the right thing to do, particularly as Dec. 25 approaches. As Scrooge's nephew remarks in A Christmas Carol, "I have always thought of Christmas-time ... as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time; the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely."
The natural generosity of many Americans, in fact, makes them easy prey for reports over-hyping the extent of hunger in our country. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, for example, released its annual report on "food insecurity" last month, and most media immediately misreported it, claiming that about 35 million people suffered from hunger at some point in 2006. But as Robert Rector of The Heritage Foundation notes in a new paper, it's important to take a closer look at the report.
When you do, you see that hunger and "food insecurity" aren't exactly synonymous. The department's report shows that only 4 percent of American households had to reduce their intake because of financial hardship for even one day in the year. And 1.4 percent of adults -- and fewer than one in 1,000 children -- went so much as one day between meals during all of 2006.
"What is rarely discussed," Rector writes, "is that the government's own data show that the overwhelming majority of food insecure adults are, like most adult Americans, overweight or obese. Among adult males experiencing food insecurity, fully 70 percent are overweight or obese. Nearly three-quarters of adult women experiencing food insecurity are either overweight or obese, and nearly half (45 percent) are obese. Virtually no food insecure adults are underweight."
In another paper, Rector examines their diet:
"As a group, America's poor are far from being chronically undernourished. The average consumption of protein, vitamins, and minerals is virtually the same for poor and middle-class children and, in most cases, is well above recommended norms. Poor children actually consume more meat than do higher-income children and have average protein intakes 100 percent above recommended levels. Most poor children today are, in fact, supernourished and grow up to be, on average, one inch taller and 10 pounds heavier than the GIs who stormed the beaches of Normandy in World War II."
It's not that hunger and poverty don't exist -- far from it, sadly. But Rector's research underscores the need for ordinary Americans to continue caring directly for those among them who are truly poor -- and not assume, as Scrooge once did, that being taxed is enough and that government bureaucrats are taking care of the problem.
Indeed, when you consider why true poverty exists, you realize it's not simply a matter of pouring more money into this or that government program. "There are two main reasons that American children are poor," Rector writes. "Their parents don't work much, and fathers are absent from the home." The typical poor family with children is supported by only 16 hours of work per week. If work in this family were raised to 40 hours per week, he says, nearly 75 percent of poor children would be lifted out of official poverty.
As for absent fathers: Nearly two out of every three poor children live in single-parent homes. And each year, another 1.5 million children are born out of wedlock. "If poor mothers married the fathers of their children, almost three-quarters would immediately be lifted out of poverty," Rector writes. But don't hold your breath waiting for one of the presidential hopefuls to float that solution.
"A government check may relieve hunger, but it cannot supply hope," Ashcroft said. "It can provide temporary shelter, but it cannot offer the long-term integrity of independence." Genuine compassion comes not simply from a checkbook, but from an outstretched hand extended to those who are, after all, fellow Americans -- and fellow children of God.
Rebecca Hagelin, a vice president at The Heritage Foundation, is the author of "Home Invasion: Protecting Your Family in a Culture That's Gone Stark Raving Mad" and runs the Web site HomeInvasion.org.