Apparently, Scrooge is alive and well these days. He’s not just a relic from Dickens’ time, not just a character in a play we watch during the holidays. Witness these modern-day Scrooges, who say “Bah, humbug” in 21st Century language: Congresspeople who want to cut SNAP benefits, inexplicably wanting to save the government money by literally taking food from poor children’s mouths. Congresspeople who have cut extended unemployment benefits from the latest budget agreement. Outgoing mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, whose policies favored the wealthy and made life much more difficult for the homeless and the poor. Readers of Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times column, who responded to his recent writings about food stamp recipients, the uninsured and prison inmates with vitriol and accusations that it was all their fault and they deserved nothing from those who have successfully made their own lives more comfortable and well-functioning.

Perhaps these people who excoriate the poor are afraid that if they feel empathy for those who live in homeless shelters and get their food from food shelves and SNAP vouchers and free meals, they are admitting that these people are like themselves. So they have to set them up as different, as someone they could never be. But in fact, as Kristof says in a recent column, “let’s remember that the difference between
being surrounded by a loving family or being homeless on the street is
determined not just by our own level of virtue or self-discipline, but
also by an inextricable mix of luck, biography, brain chemistry and
genetics. For those who are well-off, it may be easier to castigate the
irresponsibility of the poor than to recognize that success in life is a
reflection not only of enterprise and willpower, but also of random
chance and early upbringing.”
The New York Times had a powerful series just recently on a girl named Dasani, living with her parents and 7 siblings in one room in a particularly decrepit homeless shelter in New York. I defy you to read this series and not feel empathy for Dasani and her family. You will also feel deep admiration for her determination to succeed despite the tremendous odds stacked against her from the moment of her birth.
Which raises the question: What of those who strive as hard as they can, and yet fall behind? Before you write to your Congressperson to urge the government to cut off unemployment benefits to people who have been “living on the government dole for too long”, please read about Yolanda Gray.
And then, turn off the cynicism and turn on the empathy for the down and out, whose ranks have been growing steadily in these times of increasing economic disparity.
We used to say, “There but for the grace of God go I.” I don’t think God had much to do with the fact that some of us live in a nice house and shop at Whole Foods, while other families live in a homeless shelter and shop with food stamps. Let’s just call it fate. As Kristof says, “it’s callous for those born on second or third base to denounce the poor for failing to hit home runs.”