These are Dickensian times, when charity is rationed by politicians and pundits callously dismiss the poor as a burden best forced by hunger to grab at bootstraps and pull themselves upward.
Charles Dickens wrote of such times in 1843.
But surely he would have recognized 2014, a year that began with the Congress of the wealthiest nation in the world locked in debate over cutting funds for nutrition programs that serve those who are in need. The cuts were approved and, as the year progressed, so there came the announcements that tens of thousands of Americans would no longer have access to food stamps.
Food stamp cuts in a land of plenty are just one measure of the cruelty of the moment. There are also the threats to cut benefits for the long-term unemployed and to restrict access to welfare programs, which come even as Congress delivers another holiday-season “wish list” to the banking behemoths that have figured out how to crash economies and still profit.
Dickens captured the essence of our absurd times more than a century and a half ago with his imagining of a visit by two gentlemen, “liberals” we will call them, to a certain conservative businessman:
“Scrooge and Marley’s, I believe,” said one of the gentlemen, referring to his list. “Have I the pleasure of addressing Mr. Scrooge, or Mr. Marley?”
“Mr. Marley has been dead these seven years,” Scrooge replied. “He died seven years ago, this very night.”
“We have no doubt his liberality is well-represented by his surviving partner,” said the gentleman, presenting his credentials. It certainly was; for they had been two kindred spirits. At the ominous word “liberality,” Scrooge frowned, and shook his head, and handed the credentials back.
“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the gentleman, taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.
“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.
“And the union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”
“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”
“The treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigor, then?” said Scrooge.
“Both very busy, sir.”
“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”
“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavoring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when want is keenly felt, and abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”
“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.
“You wish to be anonymous?”
“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned— they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.”
“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”
“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population. Besides— excuse me— I don’t know that.”
“But you might know it,” observed the gentleman.
“It’s not my business,” Scrooge returned.
So Dickens began A Christmas Carol, a book very much in keeping with the radical tenor of a time when the world was coming to recognize the truth that poverty and desolation need not be accepted by civil society— or civilized people. The language employed by Scrooge was not a Dickensian creation. Rather, Dickens engaged in a sort of reporting on the political platforms and statements of those who opposed the burgeoning movements for reform and revolution that were sweeping through Europe as the author composed his ghost tale.
Ultimately an optimist, Dickens imagined that spirited prodding from the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future would change Scrooge— just as there are those today who imagine that a bit more enlightenment might cause even the most predictable plutocrat to reconsider his disdain for the unemployed, the underemployed and the never employed.
In Scrooge’s case, a little otherworldly pressure did the trick.
After his unsettling Christmas Eve, the formerly conservative businessman hastened into the streets of London and rather too quickly for his own comfort approached one of the two liberals:
“My dear sir,” said Scrooge, quickening his pace, and taking the old gentleman by both his hands. “How do you do. I hope you succeeded yesterday. It was very kind of you. A merry Christmas to you, sir!”
“Yes,” said Scrooge. “That is my name, and I fear it may not be pleasant to you. Allow me to ask your pardon. And will you have the goodness”— here Scrooge whispered in his ear.
“Lord bless me!” cried the gentleman, as if his breath were taken away. “My dear Mr. Scrooge, are you serious?”
“If you please,” said Scrooge. “Not a farthing less. A great many back-payments are included in it, I assure you. Will you do me that favor?”
Dickens tells us Scrooge was frightened into such humanity, But also that he was filled with delight as he prepared to open his wallet in order to “make idle people merry.”
The poor were suddenly the miser’s business.
And, notes Dickens: “He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world.” Indeed, “it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”
So it is in this season, as it was in the winter of 1843. The debate goes on, in much the same language Dickens heard more than a century and a half ago. The poor are still with us, as are the Scrooges. We’d best bless them all, with hopes that one day we will, all of us, keep Christmas well.