Scrooged: Why the 21st century now looks like the 19th

MGM Home Entertainment MGM HOME ENTERTAINMENT Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge in ‘A Christmas Carol.’ The 21st century is becoming … Continued

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Alastair Sim as Ebenezer Scrooge in ‘A Christmas Carol.’

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.”

  • outrayaskmay

    You can start by sucking the cash out of the mega churches to benefit the poor. Do they need those huge cathedrals with marble accents and pastors who are millionaires? Until “Faith” meets its full mission, stop complaining about everyone else.

  • WmarkW

    Poverty in Dickens day was an intractible problem afflicting almost everyone. In America today, almost all poverty is traceable to three avoidable problems — single parenthood, dropping out of school, and illegal immigration. Any child whose parent didn’t do any of these things, or was the victim of a job loss due to the third, has almost no chance of living in poverty.

    Earlier this year, The Economist magazine reported that SEVENTY PERCENT of male African-American HS dropouts age 25-54 were not working full time. If we don’t have jobs for our own low-skill population, why did we import 10 million of them in the last twenty years?

  • AnonymousBE1

    Where is your proof that almost all (95%?) of the poor fit into one of those three categories?

    Secondly, why should single parenthood mean a miserable life? Do we want to condemn all those children? Things happen in life: death, divorce, abusive spouses, etc.

    As for dropping out of high school, should we just accept that poverty, or have programs to get people into GED programs and training programs. The problem is that the current economy has no place for high school graduates; college is not for everybody; and many jobs now want college graduates for menial work like being a barista at Starbucks.

    I agree that we should generally not be importing low-skill labor (though some agricultural work is an exception to this), but the rest of your argument seems unsubstantiated or unsympathetic.

  • njg45

    Well said.

  • j3hess

    The shortcoming of A Christmas Carol as a mirror for today is that it locates the problem in a cramped character and personal stinginess of Scrooge.

    It is not totally untrue; I saw the production at South Coast Rep in Costa Mesa where the city council has voted to eliminate many city employee positions in favor of outsourcing – living-wage jobs are being transformed into minimum wage jobs for people who will not be able to afford living in the city they serve, to save the average resident a few 10s of dollars a year.

    But today’s business leaders are not shy about enjoying their wealth. They can blame their “economies” on someone else – the demands of the market and shareholder value, and pass on responsibility for their overheated earnings to crony compensation committees. If Scrooge had personal contact with his tenents, today’s Scrooges live on estates or in gated communities, and have management companies to collect rents or foreclose mortgages.

    A Christmas Carol needs updating to fit the 21st century.

  • asdf2

    One in four live in poverty, as redefined by the Administration. It’s a very strange sort of poverty, isn’t it? Tiny Tim didn’t have cable TV, didn’t have an iPhone, no Nintendo DS or XBox.

    Certainly, many families are going through difficult times with the government running the economy into the ground. But are we really going to pretend this is the worst of times? Really?

    That shows a stunning lack of perspective.

  • Carstonio

    The audiences at GOP debates who cheer the suffering of others could easily pass for Scrooge: “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?” Except that from my reading, Scrooge never argued that his fortune and others’ poverty was some sort of natural justice.

  • R49Thomas

    When enlightened Republican economic and social policies bear fruit and we reach the dystopia of Galt’s Gulch, you’ll be longing for the good old days of the 19th Century.

  • hairguy01

    Another Beck listener.

  • dc13

    are u crazy? Poor people DO NOT HAVE xboxes, cable tvs and iphones! How out of touch with reality are you?!?

    Please cite ANY source that indicates poor people in the U.S. tend to have the sort of material items you are imagining.

  • polysciprof

    Susan, I would help; support your thesis by offering three excellent examples which underscore your parallel. Malthus suggested (1798) the best way to control poverty was starvation and self control. Ricardo claimed (1817) wages should only be high enough to permit laborers to barely survive. Anything more, would “wreck the system.” Lord Landsdowne (1840) suggested that the potato famine would result in a million deaths — and in order to ensure that number, it was time to cut back on government relief programs. The parallel you could have exploited is Newt’s child labor philosophy and Scrooge.

  • shadowmagician

    I was thinking the other day that Newt and his fellow Republican candidates probably would prefer to watch or read “A Christmas Carol” in reverse; Scrooge would devolve from a benevolent philanthropist to a miser only concerned with his own wealth – which he hoards for no purpose. That is the vision Newt and his fellow Republicans have for Americans (at least the top 1%).

  • Catken1

    Malthus didn’t have, or didn’t believe in, reliable birth control, which is a FAR more moral and humane means of population control.

  • Catken1

    In Dickens’ day, most poor kids had only one living parent, or were orphans. The poorer urban classes in Victorian England rarely bothered with marriage at all. And almost no kids other than the wealthy had the equivalent of a modern high school education.
    Poverty causes a decline in family strength, denies kids a good education, and makes single parenthood a lot more likely.
    As for illegal immigration, well, illegal immigrants don’t risk everything to come here because they were wealthy in their home countries. Plus, financial speculation by arrogant bigwigs has cost the loss of a lot more jobs, and jobs more likely to pay an actual livelihood, than illegal immigration has.

  • richardhebert

    Its very sad what is happening to a lot of our poor children. Blame it on Wall Street & its big corporations. The greedy Republicans.

    We must be gratefull to people like Big Mama who has been collecting toys from our communities in Dade & Broward County, Florida . She has collected way over a few millions as of tonights report on the news. A company today instead of a Xmas party collected money & toys for poor children & gave to Big Mama. So there are still some good people out there. Only wish there were more. Elane Lhota

  • TopTurtle


    What was the conclusion the Economist was trying to draw from your 70% statistic? That young black men in America are just plain bad? I highly doubt it. Did you read the whole article?

  • TopTurtle


    So you see that the bottom 50% of the population only earns 13% of the income and you’re mad that they don’t pay more taxes?!

  • ccnl1

    Mad? Hardly, I only wish said 50% would all become rich so that I no longer have to pay taxes.