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“Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?”

December 4, 2012

I’m going to bump this post because, I’m still feeling this way two years later and it makes me sick to my stomach (it was originally posted in December 2010).

While I am thrilled about the repeal of DADT and the possibility of at least SOME benefits for the first responders for 9/11 (many of whom were VOLUNTEERS), I am still dismayed by the words of two prominent Republicans who seem to blame the economic woes of America on the unemployed. I mean, unemployment benefits are so awesome, who wouldn’t want to remain sitting at home on their ass to collect their whopping average $293/week (as reported by MSN Money here.  The max in my home state is a bit more generous at $584/week, but remember, that is the max…Not everyone who lives here gets that when they go on unemployment), rather than going out and finding gainful employment?  Um, what about the employers who feel that the size of their “bonus” far outweighs the benefits of keeping people gainfully employed?

It certainly does bring to mind the famous passage from Dicken’s A Christmas Carol:

‘Are there no prisons?”

‘Plenty of prisons,’ said the gentleman, laying down the  pen again.’And the Union workhouses.’ demanded Scrooge. ‘Are  they still in operation?’

‘Both very busy, sir.’

‘Oh. I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,’ said Scrooge. ‘I’m very glad to hear it.’

‘Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,’ returned the gentleman, ‘a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?’

‘Nothing!’ Scrooge replied.

‘You wish to be anonymous?’

‘I wish to be left alone,’ said Scrooge. ‘Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned-they cost enough; and those who are badly off must go there.’

‘Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.’

‘If they would rather die,’ said Scrooge, ‘they had better  do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Really! Imagine, a civilized country, reportedly full of greatness and wealth – the American Dream and all that…which actually gives a shit about its most vulnerable constituents, because, well, it CAN, and it should, and it must.

Otherwise, aren’t we as a nation, like Gingrich and my state’s own Republican leader, Alex DeCroce (who “told business owners last week that New Jersey’s jobless benefits are “too good for these people.” He said someone collecting $550 a week has little incentive to seek work.”) saying we are not quite as civilized, great or wealthy as we claim, if we can’t even manage to take care of our own, be they “deserving” or no?   When did WE the people, begin to mean, ME the people?

In my mind, the people who speak these words can not have been people who have ever been so humbled as to have to seek assistance to keep their families afloat, who have the unmitigated gall and amoral temerity to laud their unchallenged lives as a product of their own fortitude alone, rather than a capricious aligning of opportunity and circumstance.

Last night, I stood on line at the grocery store after work, waiting my turn to pay. I was tired, and aggravated (as grocery shopping tends to make me cranky de facto), and my grocery cart was full, and I was hungry and just wanted to go home.

There was a woman in front of me online, with a carriage full of baby food and formula almost obsessive-compulsively arranged in her cart.  She was shuffling through her assistance checks, to be sure she could pay for what was in her cart, and kept having to put certain items back on the shelf because they weren’t covered by WIC.  All these items were baby food jars – not desserts or junk food.  She had to get out of the line at least twice.

At first, I was very grumpy that I had chosen this line. All I wanted to do was go home, and this woman was obviously going to take a long time to get her order rung up.

But then, it dawned on me, that when I bought baby food for my kids, I never had to worry about buying the right “kind” based on my ability to pay for it.

When she stepped out of the line a second time, I asked the cashier how much the jars were: $0.50 a piece, and there were around 10 of them.  Because her order was already in process, and she was paying with WIC checks, I didn’t have a good way to get the cashier to allow me to pay for the items without the woman knowing, so when she returned with the correct items, I asked her if the foods the cashier held aside were ones her baby particularly liked. (I tried to be as discrete as one can possibly be in the front of a grocery store, because I wanted to help, but not embarass the woman, who seemed to be in her mid-30s, a Russian immigrant).  She told me yes, and I told her that I would very much like to buy them if she would allow me to, as a Christmas gesture to her and her child.

Of course, she thanked me, but wouldn’t let me, and so I walked back to my cart feeling unsure as to whether I had done a good thing or not.

It broke my heart. I paid for the rest of my groceries, packed them into my car, and called home to tell my husband I was on my way, and as I was speaking to him, I burst into tears of anger and frustration as I stared the realization that I could have been that woman had just a few things in my life been different full in the face. There but for the grace of God go I, or words to that effect (because I don’t believe in that kind of God, but you get the gist). The world is capricious and my efforts only go so far – that could have been – could still be – me.

And honestly, that line from A Christmas Carol was reverberating in my head, because, apparently, this is the way so many Americans feel: the poor are parasites whom we can’t afford, so, “Are there no prisons? No workhouses?”

The pertinent part of the video starts at 1.34

16 Comments leave one →
  1. Susan s. permalink
    December 22, 2010 4:17 pm

    Oh, Eileen. This is so moving. Please either link it to Facebook(if you haven’t already) or let me do it. Please. Please!

    • episcopalifem permalink*
      December 22, 2010 4:31 pm

      Oh, ok!

      • episcopalifem permalink*
        December 22, 2010 5:07 pm

        And thanks for the compliment!

  2. Sherry permalink
    December 22, 2010 4:52 pm

    Sadly, one doesn’t quite understand how some of these Republicans have managed to become so cold and callous. They develop a mantra that anyone can make it if they want to, and thus they need have no regard to those that don’t because they are obviously lazy. Some construct a religious defense to this by warping Paul and ignoring the Gospels. Others are to the manor born and really see the rest of us as noisome cockaroaches. We are the “hands” who do the work, while they sit and “create”.

    It is unutterably wretched that nearly an entire political party now seems intent on themselves and the corporate entities they are beholden to. I see no future for America frankly. It will end up in revolution, when the poor rise up and destroy. Marx was not all wrong.

    I’ll be long gone, but the rot is insideous at this point.

    I’m sorry your offer was rejected. It is too bad. We have little else to do at this point but to gather together and help each other. No one else seems to care.

    Blessings Eileen,

    • episcopalifem permalink*
      December 22, 2010 5:04 pm

      Obviously, one does have to try to be in the game, but I know folks who have tried plenty hard, and are still coming up short. While some folks abuse the system, so many are trapped within it. Until you have walked a day in another person’s shoes, I think it is better to try not to sit in judgement.

      I know that I’ve worked hard and I’ve made some progress in my life, but I know I’ve been lucky too – lucky in opportunity, in friendship, in mentors, in serendipity, etc.

      The Republicans seems to still be selling the American Dream to be a billionaire as a reasonably attainable goal. As the top 25% of wealth in America is meted out to 1% of the American population, making us a veritable Banana Republic, that definitively seems not to be the case.

      I agree – we are Rome burning, and the Politicos on both sides are going to be fed some serious “cake” in the future if things don’t change to make things more equitable. And, ultimately, as reapers of what we sow, we’ll get the government we deserve. Just sad to be washed up in the tide of all that…

  3. December 22, 2010 5:56 pm

    Eileen, don’t worry that you did the wrong thing. You did the right thing. You absolutely did. And this is an excellent post. (And you already know in abundance how I feel about the Rethugs so I won’t go on about it.)

    PLEASE always link to Facebook when you blog!

    MASSIVE love to you and yours.

    • episcopalifem permalink*
      December 23, 2010 10:57 am

      My blog is a sore spot with my loved ones, so, I try not to draw a lot of attention to it on facebook lest I be accused of attention whoring. Since Susan asked, I felt obliged.

      • December 23, 2010 7:33 pm

        Whore away, darling. I’ve found that people only really get upset with me when I say things they REALLY need to hear… 😉

  4. December 22, 2010 6:01 pm

    Weeping from the video too.

  5. David H. permalink
    December 22, 2010 7:36 pm

    You’re a good person, you know dat ? Merry Christmas…

    • episcopalifem permalink*
      December 23, 2010 10:28 am

      Good? Not always. Trying to improve my overall level of goodness, yeah, I’ll take that.

      Merry Christmas back at you.

  6. December 23, 2010 1:33 am

    “. . one does have to try to be in the game. . .”

    That’s kind of illustrative of the basic problem – people’s survival and the building of working, compassionate community isn’t a game. It’s the only way humanity will evolve.

    The “American Dream” is just that, and peddled hard by those who’ve “made it” – and those are the people with enough greed and little enough regard for fellow humans to climb right over, lie to and use anyone and everyone around them. The “American Dream” is the opiate that tells people “Just stay in debt – to me – keep working – for me – and keep voting – for my profit – and you’ll come out on top *like* me!” It’s cruel as any workhouse or prison, and it’s truly diabolical laughter that rings out from those who sell the drug.

    • episcopalifem permalink*
      December 23, 2010 10:27 am

      I couldn’t agree with you more Mark.

      People try, for their own sense of dignity, I think (speaking of my own experience), and to feel they have done honorably, whatever they could to make things as good as possible. It isn’t a “game” in that it effects real life, but, it is a “game” in that it’s something pandered out for Americans to play with, flirt with, if you will. It’s currently really holding us down as a country.

      • December 24, 2010 12:58 am


        I wasn’t trying to wag the shame finger at anyone . . . or perhaps I was, but at everyone including me.

        It’s hard for me to realize, and it’s still largely only an intellectual realization, but I actually am entitled to nothing.

        Apart from religious conviction that all is from God, nothing I have, nothing I’ve “earned” would exist without everyone else creating, paying, laboring, being. Nothing is mine. Yet, I complain when I “lose” something, or stand to “lose” something, just like everyone else.

        One of the most grounding prayers in our Prayer Book is in the Compline service:

        O God, your unfailing providence sustains the world we live in and the life we live: Watch over those, both night and day, who work while others sleep, and grant that we may never forget that our common life depends upon each other’s toil; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

  7. tgflux permalink
    December 5, 2012 1:57 am

    Unfortunately, the video’s gone now.

    “If they would rather die,’ said Scrooge, ‘they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

    I’m so glad Alan Grayson’s back in the House now. He was the one who provided us the contemporary Republican translation of Ol’ Ebeneezer: “If you get sick . . . DIE QUICKLY!”

  8. episcopalifem permalink*
    December 5, 2012 10:41 am

    TG (JC) – Video is fixed. And totally agreed on Grayson.

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