Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Just Shut Up and Hand Over Your Credit Card

Art by Banksy
The "War on Christmas" is a media fiction. Most people don't care whether cards or store greeters say "Merry Christmas" or "Happy Holidays". It doesn't make a difference to most people if the statehouse holiday display includes a nativity, or if it does that it also include a menorah and whatever else religious minorities and secular folks want to throw in there.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying these issues are totally insignificant. If we minorities are being marginalized, if the Establishment Clause is being violated, that's a problem. But a lot gets overblown and misrepresented in the TV shouting matches.

What does have a major impact on peoples' lives is money. Making it. Spending it. We're especially focused on it this time of year, as it flies out of our bank accounts and into the hands of retailers for products mostly produced by large companies with overpaid CEOs, and manufactured by underpaid workers in factories overseas. 

'Tis the season to be jolly! And broke. 

Shoppers' passion over Black Friday (a "holiday" that now overshadows the sedate, food-and-family-oriented Thanksgiving) has come to be associated with violence as much as sales.

Finding the perfect gifts is widely regarded as stressful. The stress caused by feeling obligated to buy good gifts for everyone perhaps explains why shoppers feel entitled to buy so much for themselves, too.

A recent survey by Lexington Law found that 57% of parents were willing to go into debt to buy presents for their kids. Even worse, the families with lower incomes were willing to go into deeper debt: 

Those with a household income (HHI) of less than $35,000 are willing to accrue an average of $700 worth of debt in order to make their children happy for the holidays. Interestingly, that number is significantly higher than the average amount of debt those with a HHI of $75,000 or more are willing to accrue ($300) in order to make their children happy for the holidays.
Actually, I get that. If a parent or parents only have $35,000 a year to pay for food, housing, utilities, health care, clothing, and anything else that comes along, they're already underwater. So what's another $700 of debt if for at least one happy day you get to see your kids squeal with joy over getting an xbox.

Of course charitable giving goes up around the holidays, but it pales in comparison to spending on stuff-we-don't-really-need. Food banks are still stretched too thin, especially since the federal government cut SNAP benefits (food stamps). And a third of Americans' charitable donations go to religious organizations, which means it could pay for proselytizing as much as it goes to feeding the needy.

Screw Jingle Bells or Deck the Halls. Here's a song that really gets to the heart of the holiday season:

What's way worse than an atheist kid being compelled to sing "Silent Night" at the school holiday concert? A kid living in poverty. Unlike the atheist kid, the poor kid can't just shrug it off, saying, "It's just meaningless tradition." The poor kids' problem isn't one of legal and philosophical debates. It's that his stomach is empty, he's surrounded by stressed out adults, and he's hoping nobody on his block gets shot this year.

In the United States, one in every five kids lives in poverty. How big of an injustice is that? This year the results of a 25-year-long study that followed 224 children revealed that being a "crack baby" is less harmful than growing up poor.

The children were examined every six months to every year, testing everything from intelligence to emotional development, achievement, and brain scans. When searching for effects of crack smoking mothers, what they really discovered was the impact of being born into poverty. Both groups — the control and those children who were born to crack smokers — scored lower than average on IQ and other tests.

In the light of such rampant materialism alongside such horrendous poverty, I marvel in wonder at the enduring popularity of Charles Dickens's novella A Christmas Carol and the film It's A Wonderful Life. Both are clear indictments of capitalism run amok, a call for the rich to share their wealth with those just barely getting by, but in the year 2013 does American society abide by these messages?

I mentioned the cuts to SNAP, which will impact one in seven (over 47 million) Americans. We now have the Affordable Care Act, which is a pathetic compromise, a failed attempt at universal healthcare, that will help many, but is a far cry from a real solution to America's soaring health care costs and unequal access to quality health care.

So I'm sitting here at my computer typing this, and once again thinking, I should do more to help my fellow humans! But when I think of donating more than a token amount to worthy causes, I remember that I have a ton of student loan debt and that we don't even make enough to save for the kids' college, much less our own retirement. When I think of volunteering my time, I remember when I volunteered with a group at a local food pantry, and we were told by the staff that what they really need is more donations. When I think about how we could cut back, I realize we already live rather frugally, and even cutting back where we could wouldn't free up that much money, but it would considerably reduce our quality of life.

The six minute film Wealth Inequality uses stirring narration and simple charts to reveal the shocking differences between what a survey of 5,000 Americans thought wealth distribution should be, what they thought it is, and what it actually is.

The narrator points out, "the middle class is barely distinguishable from the poor." We can't act like reformed Scrooges if we're really Bob Cratchits in denial of just how close we are to the edge of poverty ourselves.

If middle class Americans are truly just getting by, then those of us who attempt to live the example of George Bailey in Its a Wonderful Life are likely to end up like George, but without Clarence's intervention. After all, angels don't exist. 

What we need is change.

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