Some share of the enormous power of Charles Dickens’ work lies in its persistent examination of what it means to belong or not belong to family and to community. Dickens himself became homeless for a period at age 11 when his father, a feckless pay clerk in the British Navy office, was sent to debtor’s prison at Marshalsea with his mother and younger siblings while Dickens was placed in menial labor for some months in a blacking factory. Many critics have seen this difficult time as shaping all of Dickens’ large oeuvre and his life-long interest in the poor, poverty and its implications for the human spirit. The distinguished author himself spoke with intense emotion and sadness on more than one occasion of this trying episode in his life. The broader community had cast aside and labeled as contemptible those whom Dickens met in the boot polish plant, just as his family had set him apart (at least temporarily) and consigned him to a like fate. He never forgot this searing experience and he captured the cruel social spirit of callous indifference that underpinned it in the character (among many others) of Ebenezer Scrooge in his novella A Christmas Carol.
I found myself reflecting on this important dimension of Dickens’ work when reading a review recently of Robert Gottlieb’s Great Expectations: The Sons and Daughters of Charles Dickens (Farrar, Straus, 2012). I also happened to see the results of a recent poll of current American attitudes toward poverty at about the same time. Together, these two items caused me to consider afresh how little matters and values have changed since Dickens’ lived.
That is, like many in Victorian times, many in the United States and elsewhere today see the poor collectively as of a single sort and character. Roughly a quarter of Americans, 24%, and the largest percentage of those responding to an NBC-Wall Street Journal poll in June 2013, suggest that “too much welfare preventing initiative” was “most responsible for the continuing problem of poverty in the U.S.” Likewise, many Britons in the Victorian period blamed the poor for their condition and imagined their situation was born of weak character or sloth or both. Those with this view imagine people experiencing poverty to be grasping connivers more than willing to “depend” on the kindness of those providing aid to them while making no genuine effort to support themselves and their families. Thus, one can provide “too much” sustenance to assist the poor under this assumption. On this view, the appropriate response to poverty is to deny any assistance to those in need as it will only foster their “dependence” on such support and sap any effort they might otherwise exert to help themselves.
This characterization of the poor is surely at play in the current GOP whose 2012 Presidential standard-bearer, Mitt Romney, infamously declared in a fundraising speech that fully 47% of the nation’s population is “dependent” and therefore politically unreachable (not to say irrelevant) by a political party celebrating initiative. This attitude also underpinned the recent decision by that Party’s majority in the House of Representatives to vote for very large reductions ($40 billion) in the nations’ nutrition assistance program during the next decade. Romney’s statement bore no relationship to reality in 2012 when he spoke, just as the Republican Party House action concerning Food Stamps was unrelated to actual hunger and food insecurity conditions in the United States in 2013, when its members voted. Likewise, cruel popular conceptions of the poor and vulnerable as wastrels and worse bore no empirical connection to the reality of poverty in Victorian England when the author of David Copperfield wrote.
In fact, as Dickens’ novels demonstrated again and again, poor people find themselves in such straits for a mind-numbing variety of reasons, the largest share of which have no relationship to lassitude or to the availability of outside support. The poor, as all of humanity, the writer’s tales revealed, evidence a rich palette of values and behaviors; some few are scoundrels, as are some share of human beings more generally. But the vast majority of those who experience poverty are not villains and are certainly not in their condition of need so as to take advantage of those with means to assist them. That is, the largest share of the poor are not enduring lives of continuing difficulty or misery in order to cheat or be dependent on their fellow citizens. All of this raises questions: How can today’s GOP embrace the myth that Dickens worked so hard to dispel, that the poor both create their state and can easily overcome it if they would but try? How can so many in our own society embrace so misleading a view of poverty and vulnerability?
I cannot say I know why this broad-brushing of a swathe of humanity as possessing the same character and characteristics is once more enjoying appeal even though it fails to comport with the known facts. But I think it may be bound up with human beings’ consistent need to find others over whom they may exercise power and for whom they may exhibit disdain. These behaviors have ever been built on difference, with one tribal, ethnic, social or economic group distinguishing itself as superior to one or more “others” on the basis of some identified characteristic. On this basis some are allowed “in,” while others are vilified and forced “out,” as Dickens so powerfully experienced as a young boy. It is this issue that is so difficult for democratic self-governance, and if heterogeneity is a problem generally for democracy, it is often presented as easier to address when those perceived as different can be dismissed as “less than” and therefore not considered. The poor and vulnerable have long been placed in this category in our own and many other societies.
Perhaps another reason for this willingness of some Americans and populations around the globe to demonize the poor and blame them for their own difficulties is an innate fear that if one admitted that some share of the condition of the poverty-stricken might not be controllable by simple volition, one might thereby be required to recognize that the situations in which these people find themselves might befall one as well. Such is at best disquieting and more likely frightening. Far easier and more comforting psychologically, then, to assign the poor malignant characteristics and imagine that they could “fix” their circumstances if they would but try. This pushes the possible devil far from one’s own door.
Finally, and perhaps most repugnant of all rationales of which I can conceive for debasement of those experiencing poverty, is that this population provides a convenient scapegoat for would-be elected democratic leaders to use to mobilize voters. If a politician can convince citizens to blame a group at whatever scale for all or a significant share of their perceived woes and thereby “explain” the source of such ills, i.e., lack of rising incomes or employment possibilities or other problems afflicting society, that candidate may gain votes and thereby attain power. Leaders in many nations have followed this script, often with tragic results for human freedom, but it is no less frequently powerful and well used for that. Fear and insecurity are formidable forces.
All of this is to call once more for a politics of prudence predicated on facts and not myths concerning the wellsprings of the nation’s problems. The poor did not create this country’s economic woes and should not be made convenient scapegoats for the painful steps that will be required to address them. A democratic nation cannot survive by maligning a share of its population and by imagining that it need not include all members of its community. One may, of course, debate how best to include all appropriately, while not scapegoating any single group or demographic in so doing. A free nation should demand no less and only its people can ensure just such if it wishes to remain free.