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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Little Match Girl Redux

 In 1845, Danish writer Hans Christian Anderson wrote a tearjerker called "The Little Match Girl," which tells of a poor child who must brave a freezing New Year's Eve selling matches to passersby and bring the money home to her abusive father. In the course of the evening, she lights each match for a little warmth and in their fleeting light visions of her deceased grandmother reveal scenes of beauty and hope. In the morning, the girl is found frozen dead.

For some reason, this little tragedy is a holiday favorite. Maybe it's the combination of snow, a child protagonist, and the opportunity for parents to share an "it could be worse" story. I have a feeling it will be especially popular this year. Hard times on Main Street almost guaranty it. After all, almost 21% of all children in the US live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level – $22,050 a year for a family of four. When you consider, however, that a family four actually needs an income of twice that much to meet basic expenses, about 42% can be considered low income.

And now it's the holidays, a time that should at the very least provide a small island of happiness in a sea of hard times. Not even close for many -- especially those who have been counting on a continuation of the payroll tax cut to afford a celebration.

Politics has me riled more than usual and it's difficult to write when I keep growling. Remember 2008 when the distress over a tottering Wall Street sent John McCain tearing off the campaign trail to vote for the bail out? Whether or not this action was necessary to recovery is debatable, but the recipient of this unprecedented largess is not. Today, politicians in Washington seem to have had so little experience in cooperation that they can't figure out how to pass legislation that they all seem to support. Why this prolonged bickering and reluctance to act? Is it because the beneficiaries of this tiny gesture are middle class workers and their families rather than Wall Street moguls?

I suspect the continuation of the payroll tax cut will pass before long -- perhaps in the next few hours it seems. We're coming up on an election year after all. But one little band aid does not a tourniquet make. Happiness is draining away in a land when families become poorer, hope becomes more faint and some political bullies are even suggesting that child labor laws are "stupid."

Many historians say the Victorians invented childhood as we know it, evidenced by the stories of Anderson, Burnett, and others. But will it emerge intact from the greed and shortsightedness of our era? Or like many other treats, will it only survive for the elite?

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