MESSMORE: Giving by getting to know folks in need

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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.

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