More George Baileys, fewer Mr. Potters

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It’s Christmas Eve, and families will be gathering around television sets to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a movie so enmeshed in the holiday season that, to many people, Christmas wouldn’t quite be Christmas without seeing George Bailey come to realize how much his benevolence and self-sacrifice has meant to friends and family in bucolic Bedford Falls.

Now, alas, the downtown business districts in places like Bedford Falls have largely been decimated by malls and big-box retailers located out on the edge of those small and midsize communities. And though we aspire to be more like the dutiful, soft-hearted, civic-minded George Bailey, more and more of us are sounding like the mean-spirited and crabbed Mr. Potter, the banker in “It’s a Wonderful Life” who rails against the “riffraff” whom George Bailey helps out and how such aid creates “a disoriented, lazy rabble instead of a thrifty working class.”

Take, for instance, U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican seeking his party’s nomination to a U.S. Senate seat in 2014. Last week, Kingston generated some ink beyond the Peach State when he suggested that school children who get free school lunches should have to sweep floors in order to “pay” for their meals. Kingston asked at a gathering back home, “Why don’t you have the kids pay a dime, pay a nickel to instill in them that there is, in fact, no such thing as a free lunch? Or maybe sweep the floor of the cafeteria – and yes, I understand that that would be an administrative problem, and I understand that it would probably lose your money. But think what we would gain as a society in getting people – getting the myth out of their head that there is such a thing as a free lunch.”

And Kingston might very well have added, “What? Are there no workhouses?”

Of course, Kingston’s plan to make students “pay” for their meals with manual labor ignores the facts that schools already have janitors on hand who are capable of these tasks, and that it’s not the fault of students that they are receiving a free or reduced-cost meal. It also sidesteps the very visible humiliation that poor students would have to endure as they push mops or brooms around, while their more well-heeled peers engage in activities that might actually enhance their education.

But, never mind. The poor must be taught a lesson.

Kingston is hardly alone in his Mr. Potter-style disdain for the poor, or even those who might not be classified as well-to-do. Congress has voted to cut food stamps, even as the recovery from the economic meltdown of five years ago remains sluggish and all the jobs that were lost in that calamity have not been replaced. U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has compared food stamps to slavery, even though the benefit works out to only about $1.50 per meal, and, moreover, Paul believes extending jobless benefits to thousands of unemployed workers would be a “disservice” to them, even as they search for jobs that simply aren’t there.

It gets worse. People who need assistance are “moochers,” “lazy” or “takers.” In one infamous formulation, “47 percent” of Americans feel “entitled” to government largess. To some, Social Security and Medicare, which have kept millions of seniors from falling into poverty or bankruptcy, are nothing more than contemptible “handouts.”

It’s “Bellum omnium contra omnes,” the Latin phrase meaning “the war of all against all.” It’s a world Mr. Potter would love.

On this Christmas Eve, let’s hope that people like George Bailey come to drown out the Mr. Potters of the world.

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