In progressive policy circles, and during the Democratic presidential debates, people are talking about income inequality. Though this phenomenon has always been with us, the activists who are demanding $15 per hour pay remind us that some have much and too many have too little. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have pulled Democrats into the conversation, some kicking and screaming. President Obama, who barely mentioned the word “poverty” in the first six years of his presidency, has recently talked about income inequality.
More than a quarter of all African Americans and Latinos live in poverty, along with about an eighth of all whites. From early December through much of January (the holiday season), poverty slaps them in the face. These holidays are more like an orgy of conspicuous consumption than a celebration of the Christ child’s birth.
We have been barraged with television, radio and print holiday ads. Some can only watch the ads, not daring to hope that they can possess any of the things being advertised. Parents are often frustrated by their children’s pleas. Struggling to put food on the table, toys are a luxury they can’t afford. Meanwhile, the average family will spend almost $900 on holiday gifts. Some children will receive so many gifts that they have tired of them before Christmas day is over.
Some holiday tables will groan with plenty. Others will feature a modest meal. Hundreds of thousands will eat only because charitable organizations provide Christmas meals, or the fixings for them. Indeed, lots of charities step up during this holiday season, providing gifts and clothing for the young people whose parents can’t afford them, or meals for those who will go hungry. Lots of caring people will be photographed, Santa hats in place, serving food at shelters before they sit down to their own meal. While their gesture is much appreciated, too many are MIA in April, July, or October, when there is as much hunger as there is in December.
People shop more on December 26 than on any other day of the year, including the day after Thanksgiving, because post-Christmas sales are “great.” How many homeless people will they walk by on their way to the department stores? How many who served food on Christmas day will give on the day after Christmas? Many malls do not allow panhandlers on their property. That’s a convenient way to avoid reality.
I could go on – some people have no shoes, while others revel in the fur-lined boots they get for the holidays. Some have dozens of coats in their closets, while others are coatless and cold. Some folks have so much “stuff” that they aren’t sure what they have. Others “aint’ got no stuff” and would relish a trinket – a new scarf, a piece of costume jewelry, a box of candy, a token that reminds them that somebody cares.
I’m not condemning fellow consumers. I’m as bad as anyone, my house overflowing with much-appreciated gifts from friends, and little goodies that I’ve purchased myself. In facing my own consum- erism, I’m not doing any holiday shopping this year. I am in solidarity with the #Black Lives Matter folks who have done my spirits well when they disrupted Chicago’s Magnificent Mile (keep it up, y’all).
I’m not writing to criticize those who spend during this holiday season. I’m writing because I want those who are cognizant of the ways income inequality affects the holiday of our nation’s poor to consider activism around inequality issues during the rest of the year. We need people to pressure Congress to pass more legislation to create jobs and income supplement opportunities. We need more opportunities for people to participate in SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Programs – or food stamps) to prevent hunger. We need folks who are willing to serve justice, not just food. We need to talk to young people about income inequality, suggesting that they donate just one of the dozen toys they receive to a needier young person. Compassion is wonderful; compassion plus action is a winning combination.
When you drive by homes that are amazingly decorated with blink- ing lights and spellbinding ornaments, it is almost impossible not to enjoy the riveting display. There is nothing wrong with enjoying the profligate display of holiday cheer (an acquaintance told me that he spends more than $2,000 to develop his display). There is something wrong if “peace on earth, goodwill to all” is only a reality during this holiday season.
Julianne Malveaux is an author and economist based in Washington, DC. Her latest book “Are We Better Off? Race, Obama and Public Policy” will be released in 2015 and is available for preorder at www.juliannemalveaux.com