David Coates

America’s Bleak Mid-Winter

In Christian churches across the length and breadth of this land, millions of Americans will take comfort and inspiration this week from the story of the Nativity. They will glory in the well-known tale of a poor couple, she heavily pregnant, denied a room in the inn and offered a stable instead. They will sing of poor shepherds herding their flocks by night, guided by angels to the bedside of a newborn child; and then of kings – men of immense wealth – bringing gifts to the couple from afar. They will bring the story to a close by recalling the flight of those same parents to a distant land far from Bethlehem, a land in which the child – without his prior knowledge or permission – was then obliged to live out his early years. It is a story, that is, of homelessness, poverty, generous nobility and ultimately forced migration. It is a story in which the morally appropriate thing to do – all the carols say so – was to provide shelter to the destitute, gifts to the poor and protection to the persecuted. It is a story that is supposed to guide contemporary America.

But does it? Are there American parallels here at all?

  • Homelessness There is homelessness in America and there are shelters for those who choose/are obliged to live on the streets; and there is currently no shortage of hotel beds for those able to pay. Bethlehem may have been overcrowded by reluctant taxpayers in the year of Jesus’ birth, but America’s hotels currently are not. The STR reports a 52.2 percent December 2010 occupancy rate of U.S. hotels, a rate that is 8.6 percent higher than a year ago but one that is still reflective of the diminished capacity for travel and vacation caused by the depth and longevity of this recession.[1] Temporary accommodation is available, but long term housing security is not. The foreclosure crisis triggered by the financial tsunami of 2008 has not gone away, rooted as it now is in large-scale involuntary unemployment rather than in subprime mortgage excess.  In modern America, “about 2.5 million homes have been repossessed in the last five years. Another 6.5 million are, or will be soon, in foreclosure.”[2] That is,  one American home-owning family in eight – 13.5 percent[3] of home owners in total – is currently facing the likelihood of needing some form of temporary accommodation: not in this instance because they have been called away to be taxed, as were Mary and Joseph, but because they have/will lose homes whose mortgage they can no longer afford to pay. It is a foreclosure crisis which two years of limited federal initiatives has totally failed to alleviate, and which now faces the extra obstacle of conservative policy-makers troubled by moral hazard issues when called upon to do more to assist homeowners in trouble.[4]
  • Poverty and Generous Nobility There is also poverty in contemporary America – huge, entrenched and growing poverty – and a commensurate increase in the private wealth of the fortunate few. The American distribution of income is currently as unequal as it was in the 1890s, in the brutal Age of the Robber Barons: indeed, amazingly, “the top one-tenth of one percent of Americans now earn as much as the bottom 120 million of us.”[5] The number of Americans living in poverty rose to 43.6 million in 2009, four million more than the year before, in the sharpest recorded rise in U.S. poverty rates in three decades; and 2010 is likely to be an even worse year for poverty than its predecessor. “Since 1978, productivity in the nonfarm business sector [has risen] 86 percent, but real compensation per hour (which includes fringe benefits) is up just 37 percent.”[6] So you could be forgiven for expecting federal tax policy to redistribute downwards (at least incrementally) part of the largesse at the top, to ease the deprivation at the bottom. But no such luck: instead, with Christmas 2010 approaching, the threat of a Republican filibuster in the Senate obliged a reluctant Democratic Party and its President to agree to a settlement that (among other things) extended the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans for a further two years.[7] In today’s America the three wise men would have easily been able to set off the entire cost of their gifts against tax. The Nativity story doesn’t tell us about the tax codes of the past, but it implies that the gifts were genuine, given at a real cost to those who brought them. How times do change, at least for the very wealthy.
  • Children of Undocumented Immigrants We also don’t know what paperwork, if any, Mary and Joseph were obliged to complete before crossing into Egypt, though we suspect that they signed nothing – that they were undocumented during their years of exile. But we do know that their baby-child ended up in Egypt by their decision, not by his, and that, Christmas after Christmas, we hold neither the parents nor the child in contempt for that relocation. Just the reverse, in fact. Yet in contemporary America, children similarly moved – without their prior knowledge or consent – by equally undocumented parents are now not to be given a route to citizenship in the country in which they have studied, the country which they want to serve, and the country which they call home. Yet their new country is the net beneficiary of the work of their parents: indeed many of America’s equivalents to the Nativity’s poor shepherds are inadequately paid undocumented workers holding down agricultural jobs that native-born Americans, even in this recession, seem reluctant to take over. The children of those undocumented workers ask nothing more than to become full tax-paying citizens, thereby equipping themselves to repay in cash and service the cost of the fine education they have just received. But again a Senate in thrall to the threat of a Republican filibuster has been blocked from action by conservative legislators who now insist that passing the Dream Act for such children constitutes a kind of “backdoor amnesty”[8] which would only legitimate the illegal entry made into this country by their parents so many years ago. It is a good job that Mary and Joseph were not trying to flee north from a Mexican equivalent of Herod the King. The odds are that, if they had been, they would have been immediately repatriated.[9]

It is bleak mid-winter in America right now. Bank bonuses may be back but economic recovery is not. Unemployment remains officially at 9.8 percent for the labor force as a whole, but is running at 15.7 percent for high-school drop-outs and higher still for particularly vulnerable minority groups in many key urban centers: unemployment among 16-24 year old African-American men in New York, for example, remained at a staggering 33.5 percent from January 2009 through June 2010.[10] As Christmas approaches, almost one unemployed worker in two nation-wide has been out of work for six months or more; [11] and budget shortfalls at the state level are now poised to add extensive public sector unemployment to the existing pool of displaced labor from which private sector firms – though often holding huge cash reserves – are still reluctant to hire. You would have thought the Christmas story would have triggered, in the minds of those who govern us, the powerful necessity to address directly the needs of the poor and the fears of the many Americans soon to lose their homes. But Republican politicians in particular, subject as they are to strong grass roots Tea Party pressure, seem able these days to see only the moral hazard issues raised by progressive and socially compassionate federal action. They seem entirely blind to the immorality of the unregulated market processes creating the poverty and homelessness to which that action is a regrettable but necessary response. There will be a lot of carol singing this week, but sadly also a lot of hypocrisy in the choir. Oh that it were otherwise.


[1] Full details at http://www.hotelnewsresource.com/article51041STR_Reports_US_Hotel_Performance_for_the_Week_Ending_December___th_______.html

[2] Andreas Schipani, “Courts struggle to cope as US foreclosures rise,” The Financial Times, November 29, 2010

[3] This data in the quarterly survey of the Mortgage Bankers association, as reported in The Wall Street Journal, November 19, 2010. Currently 10.8 million U.S. homeowners are “underwater” (that is, owing more on their mortgage than the market value of their house), 22.5 percent of all U.S. homeowners with a mortgage. (Data in Nick Timaraos and S. Mitra Kalita, “Fewer Are ‘Underwater’ As Foreclosures Mount,” The Wall Street Journal, December 14, 2010)

[4] We could add to this the looming crisis in public housing, the 2.3 million housing units set aside for low income people, many of whom are disabled or old. HUD estimates it would cost $32 billion to complete all the repairs necessary on these units. (This in “The Crisis in Public Housing,” editorial in The New York Times, November 4, 2010)

[5] Robert Reich, “Perfect Storm,” The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2010, p. 9

[6] Alan S Blinder, “Our Dickensian Economy,” The Wall Street Journal, December 17, 2010

[7] “Held hostage” by the Republicans as he put it, the President was obliged to sign a tax deal in which the only people likely to pay more taxes in 2011 than in 2010 will be private sector workers earning less than $20,000 and the  6 million low-paid state and federal employees who now don’t pay payroll tax at all. (The details are in David Kocieniewski’s two articles, “Tax Package Will Aid Nearly All, Especially Highest Earners,” and  “In Tax Deal, Many Public Employees Will Pay More,” The New York Times, December 7 & 8, 2010)

[8] “This law, at its fundamental core, is a reward for illegal activity…This is an amnesty bill because it provides every possible benefit, including citizenship, to those who are in the country illegally.” Senator Jeff sessions, quoted in The New York Times, December 18, 2010

[9] The Obama Administration has broken new records on deportation. It deported 389,834 undocumented workers  in 2009 and by this December  had deported 392,862 people  in 2010 (Data in The New York Times, December 6, 2010). These deportations were designed to win Republican support for comprehensive immigration reform, a strategy that has now entirely imploded. On the strategy and its weaknesses, see Immigration and the Problem of the Two-legged Stool (written with Peter Siavelis and available at http://www.davidcoates.net/2010/08/25/immigration-and-the-problem-of-the-two-legged-stool/)

[10] Data at http://economix.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/12/13/study-shows-depth-of-unemployment-for-blacks-in-new-york/?partner=rss&emc=rss

[11] See Blinder for more details

David Coates holds the Worrell Chair in Anglo-American Studies at Wake Forest University. He is the author of Answering Back: Liberal Responses to Conservative Arguments, New York: Continuum Books, 2010.

He writes here in a personal capacity.

One Response to “America’s Bleak Mid-Winter”

  1. goatherd says:

    I remember the days when the social gospel movement still had influence and the “church” put its weight behind social justice. The last great incarnation of this movement was “liberation theology” and it’s been downhill ever since. There is the temptation of Christ in Matthew where Satan takes him to the top of a mountain to gaze down at the world over which Satan offers him political power, and later also in Matthew where Jesus expells the money changers saying “My house shall be called the house of prayer, but ye have made it a den of thieves.” The “Christian right” seems to have fallen for the temptation of political power and money. When I hear them recite the talking points of the freemarket fundamentalists, I hear the voice of raw oppportunism.

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