Editor's note: Frances Laskey did the vast majority of the work on this column.
Every December, for the past 170 years, Ebenezer Scrooge has been haunted and redeemed. In print, on stage or on film, his story, through years of adaptations, has become part of our folklore. The dreadful, heart-of-stone miser who sees the error of his ways in time to become a truly good man: a staunch friend, a benevolent employer, a pillar of his community; the wealth he formerly hoarded now set free to make whatever small differences money can make to those in need. But does the celebratory ending of the tale obscure the real message of the beginning? Let’s take a closer look at the pre-haunting Scrooge.
We read early in "A Christmas Carol": “Are there no prisons? And the Union Workhouses are they still in operation? I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course.” This was Scrooge’s response to two gentlemen taking up a collection to buy food and “means of warmth” for the poor on Christmas Eve. When advised that “many would rather die” than go to prison or the workhouse (state-sponsored aid), Scrooge famously replies that “If they would rather die they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”
As 2013 comes to a close, can we honestly say that as a society we don’t, on some level, still subscribe to Scrooge’s pre-haunting social program? Most of us would deny that we do, and for us individually — you and I — perhaps that is true. But collectively, do we do what is necessary to address worldwide poverty to help our fellow beings? Do we provide equal access for all to quality education and health care? Do we sufficiently compensate teachers and provide enough textbooks and other educational materials?
Do we pay a living wage so that families can stay together, so that parents don’t need to work two or three jobs in order to live a decent life? Do our employers pay for health care benefits that will keep those employees at work and their children at school and out of the urgent care facilities that neglected health leads to? Do we do enough to help those who lose their jobs find new ones?
Do we ensure that public transit is safe, regular and operates in such a way that people can get from their homes to their jobs if they cannot afford to own a car? Is the social safety net sufficient for the severely disabled and the non-wealthy elderly? Are we encouraging access to fresh, healthy food for all of our citizens? Are we guaranteeing equal rights for all?
Although somewhat updated to take into account changes that have taken place between 1843 (when "A Christmas Carol" was first published) and today, Dickens was asking many of these same questions. The answer was that society, in the shape of Ebenezer Scrooge, was not doing everything it could to build a strong, productive, integrated international community.
The “haves” were holding on to what they had, while the have-nots were scraping by if and as they might. They were seen as lazy, frivolous, spendthrift, drunken, dirty and ignorant — all of which were seen as character flaws inherent in the poor. However, these are not character traits inherent in any group of people: they are often conditions of poverty, neglect and the lack of opportunity.
The ever-widening gap in this country and others between rich and poor should be our constant study and concern, not just a passing thought provoked by a 170-year-old miser named Scrooge. We have the talent and technology to make a better world, and an astonishing range of human capital at hand. We shouldn’t need to be frightened into caring at the eleventh hour.
We just need to remember, in the words of the ghost of Jacob Marley, that “Mankind [is our] business. The common welfare [is our] business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence [are], all, [our] business. The dealings of trade [are] but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of [our] business!” Yes, it is our business. And it is time we attended to it.
John Hoffmire teaches at SaÏd Business School at the University of Oxford. Frances Laskey is a former HR director and current Ph.D. student in English at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.