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The Season of Our Disillusionment

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Posted on Dec 24, 2012

Jimmy Stewart stars in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

By Susan Zakin

(Page 2)

It wasn’t always this way. In 1988, Americans bought into President George H.W. Bush’s exhortation, written by Craig Smith and the vile Peggy Noonan, to become volunteers, one of the “thousand points of light in a broad and peaceful sky.” Bush’s maudlin call for volunteers was the logical next step after Ronald Reagan’s deregulation of corporate America, attacks on labor unions and cutbacks in social programs.

We stepped up. What else could we do? Helping others made us feel good so we kept doing it. We donated to heart disease research. We ran for the cure. 

People kept giving, but Americans kept getting poorer. By 2011, a record number had slipped below the poverty line—15.9 percent, totaling 48.5 million people. That’s not even counting the millions above the poverty line—$23,050 for a family of four—who are, by anyone’s standards, in deep economic trouble. As Paul Krugman recently wrote, none of the economic remedies being proposed on either side of the aisle will solve America’s real problem: mass unemployment. 

Mitt Romney was right when he complained about the 47 percent of Americans who are dependent on government aid, even though he got the reasons wrong. Staggering under the escalating cost of living—higher college tuition, rising rents driven by the housing bust that made bankers rich—we are becoming aid junkies, just like our cousins in Africa. We have no choice. We don’t have jobs, or if we do, they don’t pay us enough for a decent life. At the same time, our defunded government is externalizing its costs, like bankrupt airlines charging $25 to carry a piece of luggage.


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Reaganomics was bigger than us, and bigger than President Obama too. He may be willing to look over the fiscal cliff, but in the name of pragmatism, he appears to have given up on pushing an economic stimulus to create jobs.

I try to be a realist too but the culture of giving feels demeaning and hopeless. As I prepared for my first Christmas in New York in more than a decade, I found myself remembering when giving a few bucks felt real. As a girl living in Manhattan, I could tell the Christmas season was off and running when I saw a neediest case article in The New York Times. These were heartbreaking stories of people who lived beside us, but whose hardships we rarely knew about. Now, of course, those people are us.

The paper’s Neediest Cases Fund celebrated its centennial this year. The fund started on Christmas Day 1911 when publisher Adolph Ochs encountered a shabbily dressed man on the street. The man struck Ochs as a respectable fellow who was simply down on his luck. Ochs gave him a few dollars and a business card. 

“If you’re looking for a job, come see me tomorrow,” Ochs said.

If that sounds like a scene from a Jimmy Stewart movie, it played out pretty much that way. The Neediest Cases articles began the following year, and the fund has raised $250 million.

But it’s the story of Ochs and the homeless man that makes me swallow hard this Christmas. The old story is new again, as profound as one of those Stewart films. Because Ochs didn’t just give the man a handout; he also gave him a job. 

My, we were yare. Weren’t we?

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