I finished A Christmas Carol a few weeks ago. Most people are familiar with the plot of this book, and I was wondering if I had anything fresh to say about it. I quick internet search has told me that focusing on Want and Ignorance isn’t exactly fresh, but I want to write about it anyway.
I’m not going to structure this post with advanced spoiler alerts, because of how ubiquitous this story is in American culture. Be warned. From this point forward, I will reveal key plot points.
A Christmas Carol is most obviously a story about materialism and happiness as they interact with human connection. This story is just as relevant today as it was when it was written. Consumerism is our religion in America. And while certain aspects of poverty are objectively better today than they were in 17th century England, we are just as inclined to define ourselves by what we own and consume as opposed to what we produce or the relationships we nurture.
All of that feels obvious to me. The wretched children in the robe of Christmas Present have rolled around in my head for weeks since finishing the book. Dickens had to pick the two most potent forces that bend people to the worst of their potential.
Conceptually, what breaks us the most when we are young? What sets us on a path that hobbles our ability to be productive? Given incarceration rates and the prevalence of poverty, we are still struggling.(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incarceration_in_the_United_States)
Dickens thought ignorance and want were the two things preventing children from developing into successful adults. Was he right? The solution to ignorance is to provide education and access to information. The solution to want is to ensure that children, even in the worst poverty, have their physical needs met.
With public education and food stamps, one would think that America has made progress on these issues. According to this (http://feedingamerica.org/hunger-in-america/hunger-facts/child-hunger-facts.aspx) 15.9 American children lived in food insecure households in 2012. And regardless of a free education, the illiteracy rate hasn’t changed in the last 10 years; it’s been stubborn at %14 of the population.
One can’t say that we aren’t trying. And, the literacy rate was closer to %60 in the early 1800’s, so we have improved. At the dawn of 1900, child labor laws were enacted to enable children to stay in school, but %20 of all children died before reaching 1 year of age. Infant mortality rate in the US is only 5.6 for every 1000 live births.
Regardless, it seems that having 15.9 million kids at risk of going hungry is too much for a rich nation to excuse. Why haven’t we stamped out hunger and illiteracy? One conclusion can be drawn; throwing money at the problems isn’t the only solution. I suspect that a poor home life can unravel any good that public education and food distribution programs can do. If you are unfortunate enough to have a care-giver who fails you in key ways, you can still be hungry and uneducated in America. And, honestly, I don’t know how to mitigate for that. There’s nothing the state will ever do to make up for this loss.
I wonder what Charles Dickens would think of that. Given the events in A Christmas Carol, I suspect he would say that each of us with time and resources should be engaged in our communities on a personal level. He would say that concerned neighbors should be on the look out for neglected children. In that sense, the human connections that he advocates for in A Christmas Carol are still sorely needed.