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Harsh realities depicted in Dickens classic still haunt us

Wesley Bedrosian for The Boston Globe

Ayear before publishing his classic “A Christmas Carol,” Charles Dickens landed in Boston in 1842 on the first leg of his tour of the United States.

Dickens arrived during a period that, in some ways, might not seem much different from today. The country was reeling from a financial panic that had begun five years earlier, causing an economic depression that spurred bank failures, widespread unemployment, and revolts in the countryside over mortgage payments.

At the same time, society was struggling to adapt to disruptive technologies — in Dickens’s era, the Industrial Revolution — undermining traditional employers, dislocating workers, and expanding the gap between rich and poor.


“Dickens was writing at a stage similar to what we’ve just gone through economically,” says Alasdair Roberts, a law professor at Suffolk University and author of “America’s First Great Depression: Economic Crisis and Political Disorder after the Panic of 1837.” “The general tenor of our times is very similar to his.”

So what if Dickens, perhaps accompanied by one of the ghost characters made famous in “A Christmas Carol,” were to return to Boston and other US cities today? Certainly, he’d see the progress in addressing the social and economic ills chronicled in the novel through measures such as child labor laws, social safety net, and other programs designed to help the poor, elderly, and vulnerable. But he might also be surprised that some things have not changed.

‘Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses?’

In “A Christmas Carol,’’ the protagonist, the miser Ebenezer Scrooge, is asked to donate money to help ease the sufferings of the poor. Scrooge refuses, noting that his taxes help support institutions available to the impoverished.

“Are there no prisons?’’ he asks. “Are there no workhouses?”

Public workhouses were often stark, overcrowded, prison-like places where paupers lived and were forced to work for room and board, breaking stones, making sacks, or manually driving corn mills. They are a thing of the past today, though occasionally state and federal officials still have to crack down on unscrupulous employers, such as human traffickers who smuggle illegal immigrants into the country and treat them like indentured servants in restaurants and other businesses.


Today, many of the poor end up in homeless shelters. More Boston residents are living in shelters today than in any of 25 major cities surveyed across the country, according to a recent report by the US Conference of Mayors. Homelessness has risen faster in Massachusetts than anywhere else in the country, up 40 percent since 2007, according to a recent report by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Today, nearly 4,700 families with children live in emergency homeless shelters in Massachusetts, 1,600 of them in rented motel rooms, costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars per year for motels alone.

Meanwhile, the United States has the infamous distinction of incarcerating about 1.5 million people in state and federal prisons, the highest incarceration rate in the industrialized world; nearly 11,000 are in Massachusetts prisons.

“A lot of people today ultimately end up in prison because they started out poor,” said Anne McCants, an economic historian at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “So I’m not so sure it’s all that different today than it was in Dickens’s time.”

Bob Cratchit gets a holiday off — with pay!

In the novel, Scrooge’s overworked and underpaid clerk, Bob Cratchit, is stunned when Scrooge reluctantly gives him Christmas Day off — with pay.


Today, many low-paid and overworked retail, fast-food, and other employees would be equally stunned to get holidays off, with pay, let alone receive other benefits. “The working poor, for the most part, still don’t get paid holidays,” said McCants.

Indeed, some retailers require low-paid employees to work on another holiday, Thanksgiving, to sell more Christmas presents. They do get paid, though.

In “A Christmas Carol,’’ beleaguered employee Bob Cratchit is given Christmas off with pay, but for many low-wage workers today, a paid holiday off is still a fiction. Wesley Bedrosian for The Boston Globe

Recently, low-wage workers have had seen some progress on the benefits front. In November, 171 years after a “A Christmas Carol” was published, Massachusetts voters approved a ballot measure entitling employees to receive up to 40 hours of paid sick time each year if they work for businesses with 11 or more employees.

Employees at smaller firms can earn 40 hours of annual sick time — but they are unpaid.

‘Ignorance and Want’

Accompanied by the Ghost of Christmas Present, Scrooge confronts two impoverished children, twins called Ignorance and Want.

To Dickens, “ignorance” is partly a reference to children of his era not receiving even the most basic education. In Massachusetts, the Puritans introduced a form of compulsory education in the mid-1600s, and compulsory attendance at public schools was implemented in 1852, nine years after publication of “A Christmas Carol.”

More recently, education reforms in Massachusetts have led to higher test scores for all students across the state, but there’s also been a persistent “achievement gap” in student performance between rich and poor towns.

Some believe this education gap has only exacerbated income inequality here and elsewhere, with those getting better educations tending to nab much higher-paying jobs.


As for “want,” a recent report by the US Census Bureau said that child poverty has recently risen in Massachusetts, with one in six children now growing up in poverty and often living in emergency shelters.

Tiny Tim and health care

In “A Christmas Carol,” Scrooge is warned that Bob Cratchit’s disabled son, the sweet, gentle Tiny Tim, will die unless he gets proper care. Cratchit, laboring for low wages, can’t afford the necessary medical care.

Today, Massachusetts has come far in making sure most everyone has access to health care, implementing a universal health care system in 2007 and lowering the uninsured rate for children from nearly 5 percent to less than 2 percent, according to Health Care for All, a nonprofit advocacy group.

But that still means about one in 50 children is not covered by health insurance.

And even though all children are entitled to medical services under state laws, they don’t always get it, either because their guardians can’t afford copayments or the system is too complicated, said Brian Rosen, research director at Health Care for All.

Still, Massachusetts residents are better off than the rest of the nation, where 11 percent of the population still lives without private or public health insurance — despite implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act.

‘Mere United States’ securities’

And what comparison of the early 1840s to modern times would be complete without a reference to the financial system?

In “A Christmas Carol,” Dickens slips in a sly dig at the United States, referring to how the passage of time benefited Scrooge, who worked in finance, in terms of collecting interest on bonds. Without time, there would be no interest and bonds would be worthless, like “mere United States’ securities,” Dickens writes.


Suffolk University’s Roberts says the phrase apparently refers to the many American states that defaulted on loans after the 1837 financial panic, leading to big losses for investors in Britain and elsewhere.

More recently, investors from Norway and other countries lost millions of dollars buying US subprime mortgage securities. They might empathize with Dickens on that point.

Jay Fitzgerald can be reached at jayfitzmedia@gmail.com.