A few weeks ago, a woman in Iowa went to her city water department and said she wanted to help anyone whose service was in peril because they couldn't pay their bill.
Startled employees came up with a list of 17 customers, and the woman handed over $1,640 and instructions to keep the taps open through the holidays. She remained anonymous, but the Iowa City Press-Citizen heard about her good deed, and the word spread.
What a generous, wise gift. Turkeys and toys are great and certainly needed, but you can't have much of a holiday if your water is off.
The story got me wondering how many families around here need help with water bills, power bills, rent and medical bills through the holidays — and beyond.
I thought about Iowa City's secret Santa again this week when I read another article about helping people in need. This one tackled an enduring mystery: Why do we spend so much on health care and have so little to show for it?
America's total medical bill (that's public, private, all of it) hit $2.5 trillion in 2009, according to government estimates. That was $8,086 per person. Or 17.6 percent of the nation's gross domestic product.
Closest any other nation comes to us is the Netherlands, where a relatively paltry 12 percent of GDP goes to medical care.
Yet life expectancy is lower and infant mortality is higher in the United States than in the Netherlands and plenty of European nations that spend even less.
Elizabeth H. Bradley and Lauren Taylor of the Global Health Leadership Institute at Yale analyzed 10 years of data and came to a startling conclusion: We're not spending enough.
Instead of just looking at health care, they also looked at spending on social services — the basics we all need to survive, like decent housing, food, clean water. The stuff our friend in Iowa City probably thinks about.
Here's what the Yale researchers learned: In the United States every dollar spent on health care is matched by another 90 cents on social services. But in countries whose citizens enjoy better health, a health care dollar is matched by another $2 on social services.
What's the connection? Public health experts know that people who don't have proper housing and nutrition don't have good health, and there are decades of research to prove it. Sure, many Americans get safety net services. But the only time they're guaranteed is if you get so sick you report in desperation to the emergency room.
You can pay a lot of water bills with what it costs for even a modest ER adventure.
Bradley and Taylor know it will be tough to persuade Americans to devote more to social services. We don't like government in our business, and particularly not these days.
Still, they write, "recognizing the health effects of our disdain for comprehensive safety nets may well be the key to unraveling the 'spend more, get less' paradox.''
These are huge problems, and philanthropy can't possibly carry the whole burden. But individual efforts — of all sizes — do matter.
If you think the Yale researchers make a good point about how your tax dollars are being spent, write to your legislators and members of Congress and tell them so.
Pay a utility bill for someone in need. Support local charities such as the St. Petersburg Free Clinic that reach out to the poor and homeless, helping with both social service and medical needs. They can use your money and also your time.
And don't let your efforts end when you take down the lights and wrap up the ornaments. Some gifts have no season.