Emma got the good news that her daughter Tanika would be discharged from the hospital just before Christmas. She couldn't wait to tell Greg and Denise their big sister was finally coming home. She had been setting aside a little money each week for the celebration. She cut out her cup of coffee at the bus stop and settled for soup and crackers at lunch. She had to give up a part-time job in the evenings when her babysitter next door left town to care for her mother. Fortunately, she had found the job of her dreams working as a teacher's aide in the third grade across the city. The pink slip came in early December. Emma knew that cuts were coming, but she couldn't imagine that they would cut aides from her struggling school. Emma is grateful that she found a temp job within a mile's walk of her home. The hours are terrible, and the pay is at minimum wage. She can, however, take a second shift. With help from her church and the nearby food bank, she is determined to give Tanika, Greg, and Denise the Christmas of their dreams.
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 support 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. The federal minimum wageof $7.25 is in real value $3.44 less than what it was at its peak in 1968. What have we become as a nation? Although we are a generous people (look at all those shoppers), 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, like Emma's, who struggle 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 $2.00 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.
The much-awaited economic recovery has failed to make the lives of people like Emma any better. In fact, recently released numbers on family wealth as opposed to income show that our current economy has made the rich richer and the poor poorer. The net worth of poor households, doing a little better than Emma's, dropped in net worth from $11,400 thirty years ago to $9,300 today. In the meantime, the top fifth of income earners doubled their net worth.
The Ghost of Christmas Present took Scrooge on a tour of families, wealthy and poor, who were celebrating their 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. 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, meager, 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 moral world, parents are responsible for their "own" children. The Ghost of Christmas Present reveals, "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!"