Revisiting Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist”

Mr. Bumble, the parish beadle who oversees provisions for the poor in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, complains: “We have given away… a matter of twenty quartern loaves and a cheese and a half, this very blessed afternoon, and yet them paupers are not contented… Why here’s one man that, in consideration of his wife and large family, has a quartern loaf and a good pound of cheese, full weight. Is he grateful, ma’am? Is he grateful? Not a copper farthing’s worth of it!  What does he do, ma’am, but ask for a few coals; if it’s only a pocket handkerchief full, he says! Coals! What would he do with coals? Toast his cheese with ’em, and then come back for more. That’s the way with these people, ma’am; give ’em a apron full of coals to-day, and they’ll come back for another the day after to-morrow, as brazen as alabaster.”

Disdaining dependency.  That was the attitude Dickens exposed 180 years ago.

That same attitude is driving social policy in the United States today.  Only now that the tax overhaul is all but a done deal have we begun to read about why our Republican House and Senate and President seem so little worried about tax cuts that, simple arithmetic tells us, we cannot afford. All month we have been reading about the size of the tax cuts and the plutocrats who will benefit, but there has been very little honest reckoning about what will be the most serious human consequences.

Now, however, are we learning the reason. The real goal is eliminating dependency by punishing the poor for being poor.

In a short update, Chye-Ching Huang of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities tells us: “The congressional budget resolution that Congress approved in October, which created the process and set the parameters for the tax bill, also calls for $5.8 trillion in budget cuts over the coming decade, including deep cuts in Medicaid, Medicare, and other health care programs; basic assistance including food assistance through SNAP (formerly known as food stamps); and non-defense discretionary funding, the part of the budget that funds education and training, transportation and other infrastructure, medical research, child and elder care, and other important priorities.”

From the Washington Post‘s Caitlin Dewey we learn that Trump-appointed officials in the Department of Agriculture are considering major limitations within the food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP): “SNAP is America’s largest anti-hunger program, providing an average benefit of $125 per person each month to 42 million Americans.  The majority of SNAP recipients are children or seniors, though participation rose sharply across all demographic groups during and after the recession, peaking in 2013 at 47.6 million.”  Officials are considering “new restrictions on purchases of soda and candy,” but also considering more significant cuts: “The agency is also considering a proposal to allow states to reduce payments to some groups of people, including undocumented immigrants’ citizen children…  The secretaries’ proposals would allow states to significantly change how they offer nutrition assistance.  Through the use of the waivers, the USDA could unilaterally enact the proposals on a state-by-state basis without further congressional action….”

Why are these proposed changes so utterly devastating?  Here is Harvard University ethnographer Kathryn Edin—from her (2015) book, $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America—reporting on the collapse of welfare programs after passage in 1996 of the welfare reform law and the subsequent shift of responsibility for welfare programs from the federal government to the states, which have provided very unevenly for poor families: “Starting in 2001, more and more families with children who were receiving SNAP began to report that they had no other source of cash income to live on—not from work, not from public assistance.  By 2006, the number of such families had grown 143 percent from a decade before. By 2012, 1.2 million families on SNAP told eligibility workers they had no other income.” (pp. 30-31)

Earlier this week POLITICO published a scathing indictment of planning that has been going on in federal departments to reduce federal services once tax reform has been enacted: “The Trump administration and Republicans in Congress are hoping to make the most sweeping changes to federal safety net programs in a generation, using legislation and executive actions to target recipients of food stamps Medicaid and housing benefits.  The White House is quietly preparing a sweeping executive order that would mandate a top-to-bottom review of the federal programs on which millions of poor Americans rely. And GOP lawmakers are in the early stages of crafting legislation that could make it more difficult to qualify for these programs… Federal health officials are encouraging states to impose work requirements on able-bodied adults on Medicaid—a major philosophical shift that would treat the program as welfare, rather than health insurance. The Agriculture Department said last week that it would soon give states greater control over the food stamp program, potentially opening the door to drug testing or stricter work requirements on recipients of the $70 billion program long targeted by fiscal conservatives… The president is expected to sign the welfare executive order as soon as January, according to multiple administration officials, with an eye toward making changes to health care, food stamps, housing and veterans programs, not just traditional welfare payments… Although the effort to reshape the country’s welfare system is all but guaranteed to produce powerful political backlash, it appears to have broad backing from conservative congressional Republicans, who are already coordinating with the White House on a legislative agenda to complement expected executive actions.”

Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, who, for years, has proposed his own miserly federal budget plans, is quoted by POLITICO: “We have a welfare system that’s basically trapping people in poverty and effectively paying people not to work, and we’ve got to work on that.” Not considered in all this planning is whether jobs are available and whether people using programs like SNAP are able to work.

Paul Krugman, the Nobel-prize winning economist and regular columnist for the NY Times, is one writer who has highlighted what all this will mean for our society and our children. As an economist, Krugman believes cuts in programs like the Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) and welfare programs like SNAP—programs that, incidentally, help children be able to thrive at school—are economically foolish. He also deplores what such cuts to social programs say about the decline in our society’s ethic of social responsibility: “Children who get adequate care are more likely to be healthier and more productive when they become adults, which means that they’ll earn more and pay more in taxes. They’re also less likely to become disabled and need government support… By the way, broadly similar results have been found for the food stamp program: Ensuring adequate nutrition for the young means healthier, more productive adults, so that in the long run this aid costs taxpayers little or nothing. But such results, while interesting and important, aren’t the main reason we should be providing children with health care and enough to eat. Simple decency should be reason enough. And despite everything we’ve seen in U.S. politics, it’s still hard to believe that a whole political party would balk at doing the decent thing for millions of kids while rushing to further enrich a few thousand wealthy heirs.  That is, however, exactly what’s happening.”

If you wonder what all this commentary about planned cuts to social service and health and nutrition programs is doing in a public education blog, consider these previous posts—about sociologist Sean Reardon, writing about the impact of poverty on education—about Harvard’s Daniel Koretz examining how poverty affects test scores—about author Jack Schneider reflecting on poverty and public education.

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3 thoughts on “Revisiting Charles Dickens’ “Oliver Twist”

  1. In A Christmas Carol, the ghost of Christmas Present reveals under his robe two children, Ignorance and Want, who belong to mankind. He warns Scrooge to beware them both, but most of all beware the boy (Ignorance), for on his brow is written Doom unless the writing is erased. The ghost then reiterates a phrase (which Scrooge had used about alms to the poor earlier in the day) when Scrooge asks what will become of them…..Are there no workhouses!? Are there no prisons!?

  2. Pingback: Jan Resseger: Living in Dickens’ America | Diane Ravitch's blog

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