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Filler: Is it the best of times or worst?

British author Charles Dickens in an undated photo.

British author Charles Dickens in an undated photo. Credit: Alamy

Charles Dickens was born 200 years ago today, and I wonder how he'd react if he were to see the current United States. He might be amazed to find that the issues he dealt with in works like "David Copperfield," "Great Expectations," "Hard Times," and even "A Christmas Carol" are the same ones that shape our current political clashes.

On the other hand, seeing the people we call "poor" and the children we call "underprivileged" might confuse him.

Dickens was 12 when his father was sent to debtor's prison. Young Charles got a job at Warren's Blacking Warehouse, working 10-hour days, gluing labels onto pots, besieged by rats in a falling-down building. He earned six shillings a week. In American money, that's a not-much-better-sounding $1.04, but when you inflation-adjust it into 2012 dollars, it becomes the generous sum of $21.

This tween worked six days a week, dawn-till-dusk, for the price of two movie tickets, a comparison that makes me feel terrible that I whined at my daughter about how much hard-earned cash we blew seeing "Cars 2." In the big picture, is money really "hard-earned" if you don't get bitten by rats mid-shift?

For Dickens, 60 hours a week sticking things on pots while rodents gnawed him, all because his dad came up a bit short, was a "formative experience." If it happened now, we'd call it felony child abuse.

That job, the horrid schools he attended (when he could), and the suffering all around him led Dickens to crusade against a system in which so many had no chance, and so few among the well-off cared. Victorian England was a society in which members of the underclass had no rights and few opportunities. They could be crushed without a peep, and often were.

Wealth disparity was a big issue 2,000 years ago (see "Jesus"), and 200, but it's more harped on now. But would Jesus and Dickens think our poor poor?

In the United States, many of the poor live in climate-controlled homes. They have television, and often, cable. Plenty have cars. If they lack a computer and Internet service, they have access to a library where such things are free. Many of our impoverished are fat. Traditionally, poor means hungry.

The homeless problem in America is more about addiction and mental illness than a lack of available help. The recession has put families on the street, but it's not a widespread condition in our society.

School is free. Governments pick up much of the tab for state colleges and community colleges. Debtors get foreclosed, but unless they've committed fraud, they aren't imprisoned.

Dickens would have laughed at the idea that everyone deserves an equal opportunity. The whole point of success is to give your children unusually wonderful opportunities. He would have argued only that the poor deserve a decent chance to advance, fair rights, a voice, and a way to rebound when things go bad.

But the inequality issue, in a modern, democratic nation, is about the size of the gap. To have a stable, free society, as the richest get richer, the poorest must, too.

Dickens, seeing how the United States and his native land treat the underprivileged today, would likely think his battle won, yet creating fair opportunities didn't end poverty.

People are not equal. Some seize opportunities others squander. Today, 200 years past the birth of Dickens, the issue is not whether the poor should have a chance, but whether the government should provide them a somewhat comfortable life even if they blow that chance. The answer, oddly, is yes, but to benefit the rich as much as the poor.

If the gap between the haves and have-nots grows too large, a free society cannot be stable -- and the principal beneficiaries of a stable society are the well-off.

 

Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.

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