Each Christmas Eve in the 1930s and 1940s, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt would deliver a radio address to the people of the United States.
For the thirty-second president, it was an opportunity to mark the holiday. But Roosevelt also used these addresses to speak about the advance of economic and social justice. This, he argued, was cause for celebration, and for a renewed commitment to do even more in the year to come.
Roosevelt often read to his listeners from the Bible and newspaper columns and, invariably, “A Christmas Carol.” In the social commentary of Charles Dickens on the London of a century earlier, the president found a call to contemporary action.
“A Christmas rite for me is always to reread that immortal little story by Charles Dickens, ‘A Christmas Carol.’ Reading between the lines and thinking as I always do of Bob Cratchit’s humble home as a counterpart of millions of our own American homes, the story takes on a stirring significance to me,” Roosevelt recalled in his 1939 address. “Old Scrooge found that Christmas wasn’t a humbug. He took to himself the spirit of neighborliness. But today neighborliness no longer can be confined to one’s little neighborhood. Life has become too complex for that. In our country neighborliness has gradually spread its boundaries—from town, to county, to state and now at last to the whole nation.
“For instance,” Roosevelt marveled, as he spoke just days before the first Social Security checks would be dispatched, “who a generation ago would have thought that a week from tomorrow—January 1, 1940—tens of thousands of elderly men and women in every state and every county and every city of the nation would begin to receive checks every month for old age retirement insurance—and not only that but that there would be also insurance benefits for the wife, the widow, the orphan children and even dependent parents? Who would have thought a generation ago that people who lost their jobs would, for an appreciable period, receive unemployment insurance—that the needy, the blind and the crippled children would receive some measure of protection which will reach down to the millions of Bob Cratchits, the Marthas and the Tiny Tims of our own ‘four-room homes’?”
Today, with Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid under threat not just from House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisconsin, but from Democrats who would compromise with Ryan, with food stamps being slashed, with Congress refusing to extend unemployment insurance, we have drifted far from the moorings Roosevelt provided for America.
But not too far.
Each year brings an opportunity to recognize that poverty did not end with Dickens, or Roosevelt. There is still a need for “some measure of protection which will reach down to the millions of Bob Cratchits, the Marthas and the Tiny Tims of our own ‘four-room homes.’ ” And we can still muster the energy and resources to meet it—just as we did in the days when a generous nation listened to FDR on the radio.