Naturally, I picked up a baby blanket with no price tag on it. The chatty cashier, taking heed of the line, rang up a slightly cheaper baby item twice so we wouldn't have to wait for a price check.
Because the blanket was going to a family in need, I didn't feel too guilty. I was spending money that my News & Observer colleagues donated to help three families this holiday season. One mother of two, we discovered when we delivered the gifts, was pregnant and due in January, so we decided to take her a few things for the baby, I explained.
"Why do people do that?" the cashier pondered.
"Do what?" I asked, knowing what she was going to say even if I couldn't guess how she would word it.
"Push out another kid when they already have two they can't support," she said.
And there it is, bare, the question that so many want to ask, that so many others, citing the use of their tax dollars to support these babies, spit out in outrage.
That anger, I understand.
But over the 15-plus years that N&O newsroom employees have helped needy families at Christmas, I've tried to focus on the children, and the emotion that most often consumes me is sadness.
Delivering presents, I've been to some dismal homes, seen some indifferent adults, had my heart shredded by grotesquely impoverished but still-sweet children.
One December, my colleague and I sat in my van outside a trailer that had only a towel for a front door and cried as we watched cats eat from the trash piles out front. We didn't want to leave the 4-year-old, who shockingly was wearing only a pair of shorts on the below-freezing day, or the 5-year-old, who was the size of a 3-year-old and whose teeth were rotting.
Or the 8-year-old who so happily sang as he helped us carry in the gifts.
These children? They bear no personal responsibility for their situation. The only way I see to help them make better choices than their parents did is to expand their worlds a bit and to open doors of opportunity for them.
People cannot choose what they do not know exists.
The first step toward a wider world, of course, is success at school, which is exponentially harder for a child who is cold or hungry or terrorized by family circumstances, no matter how good the teachers.
No doubt each young, single mother has her own story to tell, but studies show early parenting gives many poor women a sense of self-worth when they have few educational or employment opportunities available to give it to them.
This month, we learned North Carolina's teen pregnancy rate is at a 30-year low. Strengthening efforts to decrease it further is one way the government can alter the poverty cycle.
But the government can't force poor men and women to be sterilized after three children or to use birth control, and it can't fling them into a well and not look back - all suggestions I've heard as I've written about the children of the unmarried poor.
If these parents make you angry or sad, help their children keep from doing the same. Volunteer at a high-poverty school, mentor a child, help a struggling teenager read better, or find a charity that helps poor children at http:// bit .ly /givingguide and support it the whole year.
Let 2012 be a year of actioninstead of anger.