[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t’s the time of year again when we gather round the big-screen hearth with those near and dear to share in traditional Christmas movie fare. These movies, of course, are meant to teach us the important lessons of the season.
A crummy tree is every bit as good as a grand one. Scrooge is happiest when Tiny Tim wins Christmas. If you really truly believe, a man who may be Santa gets you a nice house in the suburbs. If you’re a good enough man, angels get their wings and the banks won’t foreclose on your friends. If you play the frozen-orange-juice game properly, you get to take the greedy rich guys’ money. And, of course, in the end, you can win a major award and your kid will get his official Red Ryder carbine-action two-hundred-shot range model air rifle with which to shoot his eye out.
It’s all about the happy ending unless, that is, you carelessly switch to one of the cable TV news stations, at which point the game is up.
[pullquote]In Washington, there’s no war on Christmas; there’s a war on what Christmas is supposed to be about.[/pullquote]
In real life, we’re not so much into happy endings, particularly for the less advantaged (read: poor). Which is why, at or about Christmas time (officially, Dec. 28), we will cut off long-term unemployment benefits, so that 1.3 million people who have lost their jobs and can’t find new ones now lose their emergency benefits. By the end of 2014, another 3.6 million get kicked off the list.
There is some talk, though, about voting next year to restore at least some of these benefits. I’m not sure how vulnerable Republican Mike Coffman would vote, but Democratic-leaning Public Policy Polling surveyed his district — the Colorado 6th — and found that voters wanted an extension by a convincing 63-33 margin.
But in more real life, there are also deep cuts coming to the SNAP food stamp program, which (snap) kept 4.7 million people out of poverty in 2011, including over 2 million children. According to one analysis, it also kept 1.5 million children out of what is known as deep poverty, which is defined as one half the official poverty line, which, it turns out, is quite deep indeed. A Harvard study shows there are real long-term health benefits for those children who begin on food stamps by age 5.
Still, the House has passed a bill calling for $40 billion in food stamp cuts. The Senate wants $4 billion. Negotiators seem to have settled on $8 billion, but many believe the House won’t agree to such an, uh, low number.
I’m not an expert on the “What Would Jesus Do?” question, and yet I’m pretty sure that Jesus, along with white Santa, Linus and the reformed Scrooge, would think at least twice about failing to feed the hungry or to end benefits for people who can’t find a job in a depressed job market at Christmas time.
Maybe Bill O’Reilly could chew on this for one show: It doesn’t seem as if there’s a war on Christmas so much as there is a war on what they tell us Christmas is supposed to be about.
There are explanations for these actions, of course, from some of our more helpful congressional leaders. According to Rep. Paul Ryan, who just negotiated the budget deal with Sen. Patty Murray, we need to cut back on these benefits in order to save the poor from the risk of becoming lazy. In explaining his 2012 budget, he said he feared turning “the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency, that drains them of their will and their incentive to make the most of their lives.”
The hammock people, just so you know, draw an average of $1,116 monthly from unemployment benefits. That fat paycheck is apparently enough to condemn you to a life of complacency and drain you of your will. It’s funny, but just typing that sentence nearly drained me of my will. And if Ryan is talking about SNAP recipients, nearly two-thirds happen to be children, the elderly and the will-drained disabled. About 700,000 are hammock-swinging veterans.
And yet we must persevere. Because here is how Rand Paul explained the unemployment cuts on Fox News: “I do support unemployment benefits for the 26 weeks that they’re paid for. If you extend it beyond that, you do a disservice to these workers. When you allow people to be on unemployment insurance for 99 weeks, you’re causing them to become part of this perpetual unemployed group in our economy.”
Some have called Paul heartless for his stand. In fact, he sounds brainless. To begin with, no one gets 99 weeks of unemployment anymore. In all but three states, the maximum is somewhere between 40 and 63 weeks. And he’s taking his point from the fact – sadly – that the longer you’re unemployed, the harder it is to get work. So he wants to take away unemployment benefits so people won’t be tempted to stay unemployed, even though there are many more unemployed — three to four times more — than there are jobs. So, is Christmas time a time for lack of logic and lack of heart?
I don’t know which is worse – the unemployment cuts or the food stamp cuts. Neither is about saving the federal government much money. If we want to cut subsidized food money, why not, as I read somewhere, just cut out the expense-account lunch deduction?
The Washington Post recently did a story about Raphael, whose SNAP money is being cut from $290 a month to $246. According to the story, eight days after getting her check, she had already spent the money on two carts at the grocery store.
What would she do for the other 22 days?
“Mama’s version of ‘The Hunger Games,’ ” she tells her children. She has six. Five still live with her, ages 11 to 22.
And so as we next gather round the Yuletide TV, we will think of Raphael, her kids and this: Who could have guessed that “The Hunger Games” would ever become a Christmas-season sequel to “It’s a Wonderful Life”?