I love Christmas for all the right reasons.

Despite all of its faults, its overwhelmingly misguided practice, and it being the single most successful marketing scam in the history of mankind, it’s still a great idea.

No, I don’t mean Santa Claus (fun though he may be), nor presents wrapped in yards upon yards of paper made solely for ripping up and throwing away, nor chopping down trees to put them in our living rooms for a month and then toss out with the garbage (maybe we should wrap them up in used wrapping paper!), nor wasting hundreds of thousands of kilowatt-hours of electricity to power tiny, twinkly lights; the number of which is meant to serve as a proportional indicator of one’s enthusiasm for the season.

The idea I am talking about is what I, and others, refer to as “the Christmas Spirit” – the idea that Christmas can serve as an annual reminder to be a little more generous, more courteous, more merciful, even nicer. A time to look at those with less and feel some empathy, hopefully enough to actually reach out and help them. A time to look at those with trials greater than our own, whether it be in health, or happiness, or love, and extend our own good fortune to them. This is the time of year for us to give pause, count our blessings, and share them with others, especially strangers and those in need.

I know that some – many – perhaps even most Americans don’t succeed at this. They get so wrapped up in the presents (no pun intended), travel, and wasteful use and spending that they don’t perceive the message they are personally missing as they finish reading favorite Christmas stories to their children. And for every act of kindness we might witness this time of year, there are hundreds of flip-offs in traffic, aggressive shoppers berating helpless store clerks, and angry family members bitching about what they didn’t get for Christmas. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t still worth trying. Most of those people are miserable no matter what time of year it is. So even if only one act of kindness comes out of the holiday season, it makes the whole thing worthwhile.

Many of us succeed at least a little this time of year. Some succeed a lot. And a precious few are so struck with the Christmas Spirit that they carry it with them in their heart the whole year long. I know a handful of people like this. “Walking Saints,” I call them, and wish I could be more like them. They are a treasure living among us, and it’s a good thing too, because we’ve fallen on hard times and we’ll be needing more like them, a lot more. But for each Walking Saint out there, doing far more than their share, there seems to be hundreds of cynics and naysayers, hell-bent on making lives worse, and obsessed with the notion that someone, somewhere, is getting something for nothing.

But in all honesty, there are a lot of people out there in need. And there’s plenty of data to prove it.

Recently, the US Census Bureau implemented a much-debated, long-overdue, and well-researched supplemental measure for calculating poverty in the US. Its conclusion? Nearly half of Americans are either living on income below the Federal Poverty Guidelines level (about $11,000/year for a single person) or on income at less than twice that level ($22,000/year for a single person). You can read more about it in this news article.

The report (found here) breaks it down like this:

  • 97.3 million Americans (32% – that’s 1/3 of our population) live on an annual income between 100% and 199% (that’s 1-2 times) the federal poverty guidelines.
  • 49.1 million Americans (16% – another 1/6 of our population) live on an annual income below the federal poverty level.
  • The Federal Poverty Guideline level varies depending on the number of people in the home. For reference the level for a family of four is $22,350.
  • That adds up to 48% of Americans living on less than $22,000/year for an individual and $45,000/year for a family of four.

Now I will freely admit there are some harsh realities that can put these numbers in perspective. For instance, compared to the over 3 billion people on the planet who live on less than $1000 a year, the woes of these Americans hardly seem notable. But poverty is relative, of course, and when compared to societal necessities and the local standard of living, these recent US numbers are still staggering.

The article does grant an audience to conservative opinions on the issue, of course. Robert Rector, from the hallowed halls of the Heritage Foundation, is quick to point out that many people who are now counted as low-income or poor suffer no material hardship; referring to the fact that some people live in decent-sized homes, drive cars, and own wide-screen televisions. In other words, forget the numbers on actual income; these people can’t be poor because they have STUFF! Don’t look at what they make (which I’ll come back to later), look at what they have! This isn’t poverty: it’s luxury!

The Heritage Foundation loves to point to people who have THINGS when their incomes are supposedly low; hoping that by doing so they will demonstrate that people who are poor are poor by their own actions. They write articles that, on the surface, seem well reasoned and supported. I’ll even point you to some. Here’s one about this new census measure. Here’s another about “Understanding Poverty in the US” and cites many statistics regarding perceived “luxuries” commonly found in poor people’s homes, including a scathing indictment (my personal favorite) that “92% of poor households have a microwave.”

Never mind that microwave oven use has been growing steadily since 1970. Never mind that the US is the leading market for microwaveable food or that microwaveable food is slated to become a $91 billion/year industry (and that’s great for food and agro-corporations!). Never mind that with both parents working longer hours for lower wages, the fast-preparation and low cost of microwaveable food offsets the whopping $40 cost for a “microwave” in the first week of use. But I digress.

At first glance, I found it easy to accept their arguments and express disgust, if not anger, that people claiming to have so little could have so much. That was, of course, until I looked at the sources cited at the bottom of the article and saw that much of the evidence and data that they site is more than 30 years old. Not to mention the crafty wording of their findings such as, “82 percent of poor adults reported they were never hungry at any time in the prior year due to lack of money to buy food.” And did you ask how many of them received government food assistance in the last year as well? Government food assistance, mind you, that the Heritage Foundation would likely eliminate tomorrow if given half the chance. What has government done for you, Heritage? Well at a minimum, it softens your statistics so you can cherry pick evidence to build a case against the very programs that are helping your numbers out. But again, I digress.

While the logical fallacies of the Heritage Foundation are (and always will be) many, I’ll not deny the reality behind Mr. Rector’s implication. What a shock, many people aren’t very smart with money. And I don’t even mean investing. I’m just taking about spending and priorities. Yes, it’s true; I’ve seen welfare mothers with smartphones. I’ve seen public housing units with wide screen TVs in the living room. And I’ve seen dilapidated houses in worthless neighborhoods with brand new Cadillacs in the driveway.

But I’ve also seen struggling corporations, deep in the red, with private jets exclusively for executives’ personal travel. I’ve seen bonuses paid out to executives after stock values plummeted. And I’ve seen corporate lobbying and campaign contributions skyrocket while workers were being laid off by the thousands.

This phenomenon of poor fiscal decisions is by no means contained to the lower class. And if you try to cite the “government handout” aspect of low income families with “stuff,” I’ll gladly point out the government’s recent $800 billion dollar bailout of the financial services industry as a rebuttal. And considering that our plutocracy needs those 48% of Americans to spend their money, and our corporate economy spends hundreds of billions in advertising just to get their dollars in the first place, it sure seems hypocritical to condemn them when they do it. After all, marketing works just like they wanted it to. They said that was a good thing.

I suggest that if this represents the bulk of Mr. Rector’s argument, he and the Heritage Foundation would be better off campaigning against poor spending choices than against poverty classifications. Perhaps if they used their resources to provide free fiscal responsibility classes, or advertise that people need to be more responsible in general, or if they reversed their stance on funding public education, they might have a greater chance at actually changing the habits of people (not just the poor) and possibly help them to wise up, work hard, and pull themselves out of their situation.

But the real problem with the Heritage Foundation’s irrelevant assertion is actually shown in the numbers. Because if they had their way, and could influence the spending decisions of those 48% so that every dollar they spent outside of necessities went to responsible saving, life planning, and preparing for the future, thereby negating the need for all sorts of social programs, the numbers simply don’t add up.

Let’s break it down with some basic math. Take a family of four living at the top end of that 48% (2x the poverty level): two parents, two kids, $45,000/year. Let’s also assume both parents are working. Now we’re going to add up some estimates on the basic necessities:

  • 12 months of rent at, say, $850/month = $10,200
  • 12 months of grocery bills at a conservative estimate of $600/month = $7200
  • 12 months of day care for one child at a conservative $500/month = $6000/year.
  • 12 months of car payments at a modest $200/month = $2400 (that’s only one car for two people)
  • 12 months of Fuel (10 gal/wk. @ $4/gal) = $2100/year
  • 12 months of utilities at $100 ea = $1200
  • 12 months of car insurance estimated at perhaps $500/year
  • Clothing for the family (with growing kids) = $800/year
  • Health insurance (assuming they have it through work) shared premiums, copays, and deductibles = $3000/year (I know that’s really low, bear with me)
  • Annual expenses and fees (car registration, school fees, and so on) = $200/year

That accounts for shelter, food, warmth, clothing, childcare, transportation (and associated expenses), Health expenses (with employer-provided insurance), and a little for fees and such. Add it up and we’re already at $33,600/year (75% of income) in necessities alone.

Now let’s add in some reasonable additions for other societal requirements. None of these should be considered luxuries. In order to find and hold a job, send kids to school, pay bills, and so on, I hold firm that these are now actually a requirement:

  • Telephone land line w/ long distance ($40+/mo) = $480/year
  • Internet (yes, they need it for job apps, information, etc. – $60/mo) = $720/year
  • Computer and peripherals fund (for purchase, upkeep, software, etc.) = $200/year
  • Saving for Christmas (after all, that’s the theme of the post)= $600/year

This adds in another $2000. So we’re at $35,600.

Now let’s add in all the things conservatives think the poor should be saving and planning for (and yes, we all should be), because if they don’t and something bad happens, it’s their fault that they didn’t prepare properly and they deserve what they get. Here are some:

  • Saving for retirement (10% of income) = $4500/year (which doesn’t amount to much of a retirement fund)
  • Saving for an emergency (10% of income) = $4500/year
  • Saving for two kids’ college or other education ($200/month) = $2400/year
  • Saving for health issues in later life ($100/month) = $1200/year
  • Renters insurance and umbrella policy ($50/month) = $600/year
  • Term Life insurance = $750/year
  • Disability insurance ($40+/month for both parents) = $500/year

Again, none of these “optional” expenses should be considered luxuries. And if you’re going to live in the harsh world that neo-conservatism would construct, they’re absolute necessities. And they add up to another $14, 400/year.

Uh oh. $35,600 plus $14,400 equals $50,000/year. That’s a ($5000) net deficit, and these people didn’t spend a single dollar on cell phones, cable or satellite TV, or entertainment. They didn’t buy any blu-ray players, or take vacations or trips to see relatives. They didn’t go out to dinner at all. They didn’t buy new furniture. They did everything that a conservative would want them to do to be responsible, to plan for the future, and not only did they not have any money to spend on all of those consumer goods that drive our economy, but they ended up in the red by $5000. They went 11% over budget and they didn’t waste a single dollar all year.

Now remember that these people are living at 200% of the poverty level for a family of four. They are the at the top rung of that 48% of low-income earners, and they found themselves $5000 in the hole if they did everything responsibly and in a manner that would provide for them in the event of a catastrophe, without government support.

Let’s also not forget to point out that I didn’t deduct anything for taxes, fulfilling another Heritage Foundation dream into the bargain.

Plain and simple, it comes down to the numbers, which the Heritage Foundation doesn’t dispute. 48% of Americans simply don’t make enough money to provide for their basic needs, plan for the future, live responsibly, and take care of their children without government assistance. If I had to live with that knowledge, I might just say “to hell with it” and start spending irresponsibly as well. Because no matter what I do, I’m going to come up short.

Now take away one or both of the jobs in that family and you’ve driven the nail in the coffin. That family just fell under the survival line and if conservatives have their way, that’s their problem, not ours.

When I recently heard Newt Gingrich’s comments regarding the Occupy Wall Street movement, that they should “take a bath” and “get a job”, not only did I find it incredibly generalized and prejudiced (not racist, prejudiced), but also indicative of his unbelievable ignorance to the precise origin of the movement and to the desperate situations of nearly half of the people of this nation that he hopes to lead. Such blatant cluelessness and indifference echoes the sentiments of many well-to-do figures from the past, both real and imagined, who observed the plight of the common people and remained obtuse and unmoved; none more memorable, given the time of year, than Ebenezer Scrooge himself who said,

Are there no prisons? And the Union workhouses? Are they still in operation?…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.”

When faced with the rebuttal,

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

Scrooge replied,

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

To Mr. Gingrich I should like to recite the advice to Scrooge from his deceased and damned partner, Jacob Marley, who learned this lesson too late to be of use,

Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”

So as Christmas Eve is upon us, let us try to think of the 1 in 2 people you’ll encounter in the store, and on the road, and at church who simply won’t have enough, even if they were as thrifty, frugal, and well-intentioned as they could be. Consider what they do without, before you condemn what they have. Do what you can to help them, and recognize that even if you don’t trust the government, and disapprove of its spending, there are millions upon millions who have nowhere else to turn.

Remember Marley’s wisdom and place Charity, Mercy, Forbearance and Benevolence at the top of your Christmas list. Then pray that Santa delivers.

Merry Christmas and glad tidings to all.

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