The 21st century is becoming a mirror of the 19th. The 19th century, due to rapidly expanding industrialization, saw an appalling rise in poverty, and the exploitation of poor children, some as young four years old, who were often forced to work in the rapidly expanding factories.
In 1843, Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol , his indictment of 19th century industrial capitalism and the horrors it visited upon the poor and working classes, especially children. Dickens himself had fallen into poverty as a child when his father was arrested, and at the age of 12 he had to go to work in a factory. His own experience of child labor and his first-hand witness of the terrible injustices suffered by the working poor framed this complex story. A Christmas Carol tells the story of a greedy businessman, Ebenezer Scrooge, who is visited by the shade of his dead business partner, and then three ghosts who force him to face all the harm he has done through his exploitation of the poor, and his desire only for riches.
A Christmas Carol is about the child poverty caused by 19th century economics, and its threat to children. Over the tale hangs the fate of Tiny Tim, the youngest child of Scrooge’s employee, a child who lacks health care and proper food, and thus may die.
At the end of this, the first decade of the 21st century, nearly 1 in four children in the United States lives at or below the poverty level. Yet, Newt Gingrich, a Republican candidate for president, recently called child labor laws “stupid” and recommended that school janitors be fired so that poor children could be taught to work, that is, to do work such as cleaning the bathrooms of their schools. Firing working parents with good jobs in order to employ poor children in potentially hazardous occupations is worthy of the unredeemed Ebenezer Scrooge.
We, the American people, are being Scrooged by such political attitudes that threaten to undo all the progress our society has made since the terrible toll taken on society by runaway industrial capitalism in the 19th century. The post-industrial capitalism of the 21st century is no less a threat. We are rapidly becoming a society driven by banking practices that manufacture nothing but debt, and an economy that grows only fast food, service jobs and an increasing class of working poor.
The Scrooges of our political process need to be visited by some ghosts who can remind them what the costs are of failing to create and sustain economic and political processes that reduce poverty and inequality.
The Ghost of Christmas Past
The ghost of the 19th century should still haunt Americans. This was a time when America bred only “tramps and millionaires,” as Reformists argued. Voter intimidation was rampant, business interests owned newspapers, homes were “covered with mortgages, labor impoverished…workmen are denied the right of organization…and the fruits of toil of millions are boldly stolen to build up colossal fortunes for a few.”
Sound familiar? These ghosts haunted this country through the Great Depression of the 1930’s. It was only with the “G.I. Bill” of 1944 that the middle class in America was invented. Suddenly Americans had money for college, to start a business, to put a down payment on a home and acquire a mortgage.
But this Ghost of the 19th century now haunts the 21st century.
The Ghosts of Christmas Present
The Ghost of Christmas present is the ghost of dramatically rising income inequality. In October of 2011, the Congressional Budget Office released a study that described the present plight of the American people, telling most of them what they already knew. The “after-tax income for the highest-income households grew more than it did for any other group.” But not just by a little. CBO found that, between 1979 and 2007, income of the top 1 percent of households grew 275 percent. The next 19 percent of households grew about a quarter of that and, of course, the bottom half of Americans saw very little income growth.
This ghost now also goes by the name of #OccupyWallStreet. The #OWS movement has far outlasted the attacks on its tents because it is an idea. It is the idea that haunts an America of “tramps and millionaires.” America is not about a few rich and a lot of poor. America was, and is, the human hope for economic equality and equal civic participation. This ghost won’t die.
The Ghost of Christmas Future
So, will Tiny Tim die or will health care reform survive and save him? Will a quarter of American children continue to live in poverty, or God forbid, will even more of them and their parents become poor?
The Ghost of Christmas Future shows Scrooge the grave of Tiny Tim, but Scrooge awakens. He has not missed Christmas and he becomes a transformed man, treating his employees decently and giving his time and his treasure to help the poor. Tiny Tim gets the medical treatment he needs, and he lives.
The Ghost of our Christmas Future is showing us, as Americans, the choice we have before us: a choice between a society that lives its values of freedom and equality, or dies the death of drastic economic inequality leading to social anarchy.
But we would be mistaken if we waited for the Scrooges of our time to change their minds and do the right thing in their economic practices and their political views. It is the American people, the 99 percent, who have to awaken to their common interests, even as they honestly confront the race and class divides that exist among us, as Barbara and John Ehrenreich argue so well. If we were able to do that, to find our common interests and confront our prejudices, that would be Christmas future indeed.
That is the Christmas future I hope for.
So with Tiny Tim, I say, “God bless us, every one.”