Some years ago I read that Charles Dickens would sometimes pay tramps to sit outside his house on Christmas Day, so that he and his carousing guests could enjoy the cosy domestic pleasures of the Victorian hearth even more, by contrasting it with the poverty and deprivation just outside his front door.
I’ve never managed to discover whether that story is true or not, and I initially thought in any case that it was an odd thing to do. But lately I’ve come to conclude that it isn’t that odd at all, because in a way British society does something similar every year, when the homeless suddenly become a subject worthy of media attention in the lead up to Christmas.
Judging from the almost ritualistic way that the homeless will appear on tv and the radio, a recently arrived alien would be forgiven for believing that people only become homeless during December, and then go back to their houses again, after providing the rest of us with as a kind of bleak seasonal counterpoint to the Rabelaisian levels of consumption with which we celebrate the birth of the Messiah.
This year has been no exception. We learned from Shelter that 80,000 children were homeless on Christmas Day in the UK. We read about how Americans showered presents on a homeless Washington schoolgirl called Christmas Diamond Hayworth, after a heartrending story appeared in the Washington Post, which described how she and her mother had been turfed out onto the pavement.
Many readers were moved to tears by that story, and so touched by the contrast between the world of poverty that it described and the affluence of their own children, that they personally visited the shelter where Christmas and her mother were staying to present her with the paint set and art materials she had set her heart on.
Noone can deny that this is a sweet story, or that the sentiments of those who did this were admirable and even noble. But there are other issues here, which the Washington Post did not address, in its celebration of the altruism shown by a (guilty) few towards a girl with an appropriately seasonal name; namely what kind of society is it that allows a woman and her children to be thrown out onto the street because she doesn’t have money to pay the rent?
Why must me feel goodwill towards the poor at Christmas, yet tolerate for the rest of the year the systemic factors that reduce people to poverty and homelessness, and which increasingly strip away the protection and support available to keep the weakest and most vulnerable sections of society from becoming even poorer?
From today, for example, 1.3 million Americans who have been unemployed for 27 weeks or more will lose their unemployment benefits, because Congress, with the support of President Obama, has not included an extension of the period over which such benefits are allowed in its new budget.
In the UK, the Trussell Trust has attributed the astonishing rise in the numbers of people using foodbanks primarily to the benefit cuts and ‘reforms’ introduced by the Coalition government. Yet Ian Duncan Smith, a stunningly callous and fanatical politician who is beginning to make Lord Castlereagh look positively benign, accuses the Trust of ‘scaremongering’ in order to promote its ‘business model.’
In a Commons debate shortly before Christmas, Duncan Smith and his deputy Esther McVey could be seen smirking and sniggering along with other Tory MPs as Labour MP Fiona MacTaggart told the house of shoppers in her local Tescos scrabbling for discounted vegetables.
Not even the season of goodwill could inject any humanity into this lot, it seems. We might ponder over the mysterious psychological processes that lead people like Duncan Smith to have a little chuckle at the thought of poor people scrabbling round to survive, some of whom will be doing so as a result of their policies.
But to some extent we would be wasting our time. Because what we are dealing with here is a social phenomenon, that we can trace back through the 19th century Poor Laws and the workhouse, to the fear and regulation of the ‘wandering poor’ in the Middle Ages.
Rich and unequal societies fear and to some extent hate the poor who provide the most visible evidence of social injustice. The elites who benefit most from such injustice have even more reason to do so, because they see in the poor the possibility of their ultimate downfall, and a moral obligation that they are reluctant to accept.
So like the Republican Party in the United States, and like the Coalition, they must convince themselves that the poor are poor because of their vices, because they are lazy, feckless and parasitical.
They more they do this the more they are able to ease any sense of moral responsibility or obligation towards them and feel better about the wealth they have or the wealth they might have. Blaming those who have little or nothing is also a lot more convenient politically, than drawing attention to those who have everything, or the structural inequalities that extreme disparities in wealth and power have embedded into society.
This is why ‘benefit scroungers’ and the ‘workshy’, disabled people and migrants have got such a kicking over the last few years, just as beggars and ‘masterless men’ once did in times gone by.
And the more the gap grows between the haves and have nots, the more pressing it becomes to gloss over the fact that so much poverty is essentially manufactured poverty, and blame it on the poor themselves.
When I say manufactured, that’s exactly what I mean. On Boxing Day, a coroner’s report revealed that Tim Salter, a 53-year-old unemployed man who has been partially blind since 1994 and suffered from mental health problems, hanged himself in September because a Government test had judged him fit for work and cut his disability benefits.
Salter was only two days from an eviction from the house where he had lived all his life, when he killed himself. According to the Coroner:
‘A major factor in his death was that his state benefits had been greatly reduced leaving him almost destitute and with threatened repossession of his home.’
No doubt that is a story to make Duncan Smith and his colleagues chuckle over their Christmas turkey – or blame it on the mental health problems of a little person with nothing much in the bank.
But many others might conclude that this was a death that did not need to happen;that no one should ever be thrown on the street or forced to go to a foodbank in what remains one of the richest countries on earth; that such things are not the result of fate or destiny or bad lifestyle choices, but political decisions taken by men and women who really don’t care very much about anybody’s interests except those above a certain income level.
And the fact that we have allowed such people to rule us is something that should fill us with shame and disgust – and move us to something more than a little flutter of generosity and goodwill once a year.