YOU WON’T BE SURPRISED TO HEAR THAT the number of those who are homeless has increased in recent years. What does irk us somewhat is the discovery that the numbers of those homeless in the upper 1% is also going up. It’s not that they don’t have homes – the average number is three for this group, and that doesn’t include holiday homes or yachts – it’s that they increasingly avoid settling down anywhere. They often put more importance on their means of transport to all these various places than they do in the temporary habitats they reside in.
Those in the upper crust have always been characterized by their possession of opulent homes. But in previous times, at least, they actually lived and worked out their lives in their communities. Where the rich once boasted of their mansions, they now boast of their constant movement. The meteoric rise of yachts and private aircraft supports this trend. The idea of the historic form of civic membership is quickly waning in this group.
Such a development is also mirrored in various aspects of the corporate sector. For a significant part of our history, where we worked often formed a kind of status. The larger a contribution a company made to its community, the more prestigious it was to work there and be highly regarded by the community.
But that’s all changing now, as companies continue to move their headquarters and plants quickly and adroitly to other locations. As author Rosabeth Kanter put it: “For cities as well as employees, this constant shuffling of company identities is confusing and its effects profound.” Kanter goes on to say that the damage to the social and economic fabric in a community when a business departs is like “tearing holes” in community identity and confidence.
And then there is growing disenchantment within what we might term the “anxious” class. At best, it’s about not knowing if there will be a job next month; at worst it’s about not knowing where the next meal will come from. And eventually they become labelled by the very economy they can’t bend to their circumstances. They become known primarily by their relationship to the economy. Their abilities, faithfulness, intelligence, dedication to community, or their responsibility to their neighbours are totally passed over in favour of how they compare to the wealthy. They might be pulling off the minor miracle of holding down two or three minimum wage jobs, but the sum total of all their efforts might mean they still can’t afford a house. Despite their uniqueness, they find themselves coupled with the poor, or lesser off, or marginalized.
For such people Christmas loses much of its magic. In a world where the rich, like Ebenezer Scrooge, or the devilish Mr. Potter in It’s A Wonderful Life, had to work out their lives and reputations in a settled community, there were always possibilities for the rich to turn their lives around, or for the poor to achieve some sense of relief and hope. But what if the rich aren’t there, but instead on a holiday isle somewhere or in their Asian headquarters for a few weeks? How do the upper and lower segments of community meet in a fashion that makes renewal possible in such a situation?
Author Lee Rainwater, in his book What Money Buys, outlines the kind of life those struggling to make ends meet inevitably face:
They are engaged in a constant implicit assessment of their likely chances for having the access and resources necessary to maintain a sense of valid identity. People’s anticipation of their future chances, particularly the young, seems to affect quite markedly the way they relate to others and the way they make use of the resources available to them. By reducing their chance, chronic poverty blocks economic and political participation, and consequently weakens the capacity to develop confidence and sustain enduring relationships.
And so there we have it. Lacking the identity and resolve that an economic sense of stability would bring them, these “anxious” citizens become vulnerable to a kind of financial domination that generations believed they had escaped following the Second World War. Though rich in spirit and potential, they are necessarily allied to their lack of income and consigned to a kind of “dead space” of emotional drudgery.
This is the very stuff that Christmas in any community is meant to overcome. But when we feel helpless to change the economy or to even locate those needed to be held accountable for the growing gap between rich and poor, the holiday season becomes a dull ache, and incessant reminder that Christmas miracles must be meant for someone else.
Recalling his own tenure in poverty, author Charles Bukowski noted, “What a weary time those years were – to have the desire and the need to live and be respected but not the ability.” This is the opposite of what Christmas is supposed to be – the belief that goodness would outweigh greed, peace could overcome economic oppression, and that our employment could be an extension of the talented people we are. There is no Santa Claus on this one; we must dedicate ourselves to creating the conditions of Christmas in our own communities.