Feeling the Pinch During the Holidays

Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller (1834)


Ferdinand Georg Waldmüller, “A traveling family of beggars is rewarded by poor peasants on Christmas Eve” (1834)

What with cuts to food stamps, millions of the working poor from red states denied access to Medicaid, and unemployment insurance due to be terminated three days after Christmas, the GOP seems determined to play the role of Scrooge this year. God forbid that we should raise the minimum wage or close corporate tax loopholes. In her novel Flight Behavior, Barbara Kingsolver shows us what the holidays look like to people at the low end of the economic spectrum.

Before I share passages from her 2012 book, however, here’s New York Times columnist Charles Blow responding angrily to Rand Paul after the Kentucky senator asserted that extending unemployment insurance beyond 26 weeks would be “a disservice to these workers.” Here’s Blow:

The poor are easy to pick on. They are the great boogeymen and women, dragging us down, costing us money, gobbling up resources. That seems to be the conservative sentiment.

We have gone from a war on poverty in this country to a war on the poor, in which poor people are routinely demonized and scapegoated and attacked, and conservatives have led the charge.

They paint the poor as takers, work averse, in need of motivation and incentive.

Blow draws on his own experience growing up in poverty to correct the picture:

Well, that is simply not my experience with poverty. I have been poor, and both my parents worked. I grew up among poor people, and almost all of them worked. The problem wasn’t lack of effort, but low pay. Folks simply couldn’t make enough to shake the specter of need.

In fact, the poor folks I knew growing up were some of the hardest working people I have ever known — rising before dawn to pack lunches and sip coffee, trying to get the mind right for a day of toil and sweat that breaks the body but not the spirit.

They were people who wanted what most folks want — to earn an honest wage for an honest day’s work; to live a happy, meaningful life that leaves a mark on the world when they are gone from it; to raise bright, healthy children who go further in life than they did; to be surrounded by family and friends and neighbors — a village — where people support and cared for one another.

And now here’s a novelist taking us inside such a world. Cub and Dellarobia, two Appalachian sheep famers scratching out a living, visit a dollar store to find presents for their five–year-old son Preston. Preston has suddenly become fascinated with science because an unexpected migration of monarch butterflies, driven north by climate change, has suddenly appeared in their woods. Everything his parents see in the store, however, is either tacky, poorly made, or too expensive. The first voice is Cub’s:

“The true meaning of Christmas is Turn it over and look at the price tag.”

This struck her as the most insightful thing Cub had said in years, although maybe he just meant it literally. They began picking through a shelf of shrink-wrapped DVDs labeled “Previously Viewed.” She felt degraded, as if shopping for previously chewed meals. . .

She squinted to read the small print on what seemed to be a documentary about lions. It was hard to tell what you were totally getting. And it was $12.50. For a previously viewed video, that was outrageous. Their cart remained empty as they rounded the corner into the toy aisle. Cub picked up a boxing robot game, registered the $20 sticker and put it back. Then he picked out a large $5 affair that looked to be some combination of automatic weapon and chain saw.

“Every redneck child’s dream!” she carped, eliciting a tight, warning look she rarely saw from Cub. She should rein herself in, she knew that…

And then later in the shopping expedition:

Cub had abandoned her in the toy aisle, still having found nothing that would please Preston. Cordie was easy, she would make wrapping paper a festivity, but Preston was another story. She felt haunted by her son’s hopeful gaze and inevitable disenchantment as she looked down the row of married Potato Heads and knock-off Barbies. Her eye landed on a set of green plastic binoculars, shrink-wrapped onto a bright cardboard backing. “Funtastic!” it said. Explore, discover, get close to nature, all for $1.50, carry strap included. Made in China. She held the plastic package sideways up to her eye, trying to peer through, and couldn’t even make out the items in her own shopping cart. The quality was exactly what you’d expect for a buck-fifty. It was so tempting to buy a horrible thing you could afford, just because the package said “Explore nature.” You could pretend it actually worked, and make your kids shut up and do the same. Childrearing in the underprivileged lane. She put back the binoculars, feeling so desperate for a cigarette she considered lighting up right there in front of Mrs. Potato Head. She could get in a few good hits before someone made her stop. She knew they wouldn’t kick her out of the store. They wanted her damn fifth dollars.

Christmas is saved, however, in part because they decide to decorate the Christmas tree with all the spare change they can find lying around the house. A $20 bill they find in the sofa they fold into a star and put on the top of the tree. If Christmas represents hope over present-day darkness, then their money tree captures this sense of bounty.

You know what else would seem miraculous? Congress extending unemployment benefits to the million or so Americans who will be losing it in two weeks. So in the spirit of the holidays, contact your members of Congress.

In your e-mail, also mention food stamps and a higher minimum wage.

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  • Sean

    Several years ago I was in a graduate class with a number of teachers from affluent school districts and we were expressing random concerns and stories before class. As a teacher at a high school that has 80% of its students at or below poverty level, I was horrified at how many of these adults were actually demonizing students that grow up in abject poverty. “Isn’t it absurd that they actually have money for phones, shoes, etc. but can’t foot the bill for a decent meal,” they would say. One man actually told me he hoped “these people” keep wasting their money on this flashy junk because it reassured him that they would never be able to save enough to move anywhere near his neighborhood. Now, I don’t know the exact pathology of individuals that actually think like this, but it’s rather disturbing. It’s amazing how some of the most privileged and wealthy among us can feel so threatened by people who just want to be able to live a healthy and comfortable life.
    Great post, Robin! This book sounds like a great holiday read.

  • Robin Bates

    The fact that we are increasingly living in gated communities and information silos, Sean, helps contribute to the worrisome trend you note. I’ve been teaching Walt Whitman recently and, in his vision of America, we are all leaves of grass together. He glories in our diversity and our equal status.

    Kingsolver’s book is a blast to read. Dellarobia, as one of my students described her (I’m teaching the book at the moment) is a “firecracker.”


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