11/21/2013 08:38 am ET Updated Jan 25, 2014

Having Trouble Getting Into the Holiday Spirit? So Are The Poor. Suggestion: Give to Food Charities.

I'm having trouble with the idea of getting and spending.

It's a persistent problem. But it flared up big time when we decided to let the child have an early Christmas present: the new Apple 5C. We told her the deal: "You're going to look at the tree and see fewer presents." She got it. So off we went.

A block from the store, we passed a church. There was a long line outside.

"What's that?" the child asked.

"A food line -- they're poor, and they're getting free sandwiches and milk," I explained.

We walked on, the child contemplating a new pink phone and a case that looked like bubble wrap, and me thinking, as I often do, about the distance between the people on that line and us, and how much of that distance is about luck.

A few days later, as a result of a bad deal the Democrats made in 2010, food stamp benefits were reduced for more than 47 million Americans. Some 600,000 women and children were cut from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children -- yet another defeat for the poor in the richest country on earth, where, at some point in the last year, 17.6 million households have been unable to buy food.

In New York City, the picture is especially ugly. Even before the Congressional cut, 75% of the clients of city food pantries and soup kitchens said that their monthly benefits lasted for only three weeks. Sixty-three percent of the city's food charities are reducing portion size or turning people away. Six blocks from our apartment -- that's one subway stop -- a soup kitchen and food pantry struggles to provide 50,000 free meals a month.

"First feed the face," Bertolt Brecht wrote. "Then talk right and wrong." I agree. But there's no point looking to Washington to feed the poor -- no leader, in either party, is going to do a damn thing to make life less miserable for people who can't afford lobbyists. The poor and the hungry simply don't exist. I can't believe I could ever write that line in the present tense, but there it is: The poor don't matter. They are invisible.

"The poor can never be made to suffer enough," Jimmy Breslin says. Certain politicians -- Christians, all of them; you know their names -- believe that if we make the poor suffer more, they'll get off their asses and find a job. In that scenario, the responsibility for feeding the poor rests on... the poor. It's up to them.

Other people -- not necessarily Christians -- follow the words from Matthew: "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me." There's too much trouble for us to be everywhere, but we do what we can.

My issue is hunger. Especially as it hits children.

So this is what I'm doing for the holidays: buying fewer, less expensive presents and giving more money to food banks.

This is what I'd like to encourage you to do: buy fewer, less expensive presents and give more money to food banks.

Butler veterans may remember a piece I wrote a few years ago about an Ursula LeGuin story, "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas." [It's not long. To read it, click here.] In the story, everyone in Omelas is happy. But there's a price: the suffering of one child. Ten years old. Locked in a room the size of a broom closet.

"I will be good," it says. "Please let me out. I will be good!" They never answer. The child used to scream for help at night, and cry a good deal, but now it only makes a kind of whining...

There are, from time to time, people who can't stand to be happy at the expense of another's misery -- particularly the misery of a child.

They leave Omelas.

My piece ended like this: I want to find out where the people go after they leave Omelas. I like to think you too would be interested in knowing that.

A reader wrote: "Why don't you leave Omelas and find out?"

Great question. Doing something to help that suffering child -- doing something to help as many children as possible -- seems like a way to move toward the city limits of Omelas. It's a tentative step, taken by a man with only occasional courage. But it's something; it's an action, not a sentiment. It feels good.

I hope to see you on the road.

[reposted from]