There has never been a better time for us to read A Christmas Carol and to let Dickens' ghosts help us to see more clearly what lies in plain view. Unlike Scrooge before his conversion, most of us enjoy the holiday, wish family and friends a "Merry Christmas," and write generous checks to our favorite charities. We are far more sympathetic to the Bob Cratchits in our country, the working poor, who for decades have been denied their fair share of the wealth they have helped to create . Over two-thirds of us favor raising the current minimum wage of $7.25 to a level approaching a living wage. Although as individuals, very few of us are resentful misers, as a nation we have become Scrooge at his worst.
Over the past four decades, we have allowed and abetted record inequality. The wealthiest one percent of us now has a net worth 288 times higher than the average family, which is more than double the ratio 50 years ago. The redistribution of wealth to the top of the income ladder now leaves almost half of our children in families who struggling to pay the bills each month (those within 150 percent of the poverty line). Half of those children live in families that are below the official poverty line and a fifth of the least fortunate of those live in extreme poverty (at $2 or less a day). The percentages in all categories would be much higher were it not for means tested the public assistance programs, especially the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), better known as the food stamp program. Yet instead of increasing funding for SNAP, we cut SNAP in November, and we are poised to cut it again along with unemployment benefits for the chronically unemployed, who struggle to feed let alone buy Christmas presents for their children. Not only have we pulled the safety net out from under millions of families and their children, we have pulled up the ladder of social mobility. For increasing numbers of children, who lack basic resources from nutrition to education, the promise of the American Dream has become a cruel joke.
The Ghost of Christmas Present took Scrooge on a tour of families, wealthy and poor, who were celebrating Christmases. Among these were the Cratchits including a frail Tiny Tim, whom the Ghost predicts will not survive another year of poverty. Before the Ghost departs, two children appear within the folds of his cloak. Here is how Dickens describes their encounter with Scrooge:
'Oh, Man. look here. Look, look, down here.' exclaimed the Ghost.
They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling,
wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where
graceful youth should have filled their features out, and
touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled
hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and
pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat
enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No
change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any
grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has
monsters half so horrible and dread.
Scrooge started back, appalled...
'Spirit. are they yours.' Scrooge could say no more.
'They are Man's,' said the Spirit, looking down upon
them. 'And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers.
This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both,
and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy,
for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the
writing be erased.
What should haunt us all this Christmas is not the wretched sight of Ignorance and Want, but the question that Scrooge poses to the Ghost -- "Spirit are they yours?" In Scrooge's comfortable moral world, parents are responsible for their "own" children. The Ghost of Christmas Present reveals that these wretched children belong to him and to us all. "They are Man's." These are our children, and we are all responsible for their future, which is ours.
In his Preface, Dickens wrote that he intended his story to "haunt" us "pleasantly." He did not want his tale to mire us in guilt and helplessness but to lift us up in a spirit of justice and joy. The good news is that together as a free, democratic, and prosperous people, we can repair the safety net, restore the ladder of opportunity, and, like the enlightened Scrooge, "know how to keep Christmas well."
"God Bless Us, Every One!"