Building an Economy that Works for Everyone

‘A Christmas Carol’: Sending the Poor to Prison

Illustration of the Gosht of Christmas Present by John Leech from the 1800s.

Illustration of the Ghost of Christmas Present by John Leech from the 1800s.

When he was 12 years old in 1824, Charles Dickens worked 10-hour days in a rat-infested shoe-polish factory for six shillings a week. That’s the equivalent of £30.68 or $41.06 in 2017 currency.

It was all the money he had to get by. His father, mother, and five siblings aged 2-11 were in prison because the family was in debt. This is what Western society did with the poor in the mid-1800s. If you fell behind on your bills or couldn’t pay legal fines, you and your family went to flea-ridden government workhouses where you would labor to earn your keep.

Your work did not, however, pay off your debts – you could spend the rest of your life there. If you died in a debtor’s prison, your body was given to anatomists to dissect in the name of science.

Needless to say, Charles Dickens grew to hate the system and rail against it in his works. In his seminal novella “A Christmas Carol,” Ebenezer Scrooge is visited by two portly men raising money for the poor.

“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge,” said the [one of the gentlemen], taking up a pen, “it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the Poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time. Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”

“Are there no prisons?” asked Scrooge.

“Plenty of prisons,” said the gentleman, laying down the pen again.

“And the Union workhouses?” demanded Scrooge. “Are they still in operation?”

“They are. Still,” returned the gentleman, “I wish I could say they were not.”

“The Treadmill and the Poor Law are in full vigour, then?” said Scrooge.

“Both very busy, sir.”

“Oh! I was afraid, from what you said at first, that something had occurred to stop them in their useful course,” said Scrooge. “I’m very glad to hear it.”

“Under the impression that they scarcely furnish Christian cheer of mind or body to the multitude,” returned the gentleman, “a few of us are endeavouring to raise a fund to buy the Poor some meat and drink, and means of warmth. We choose this time, because it is a time, of all others, when Want is keenly felt, and Abundance rejoices. What shall I put you down for?”

“Nothing!” Scrooge replied.

“You wish to be anonymous?”

“I wish to be left alone,” said Scrooge. “Since you ask me what I wish, gentlemen, that is my answer. I don’t make merry myself at Christmas and I can’t afford to make idle people merry. I help to support the establishments I have mentioned: they cost enough: and those who are badly off must go there.”

“Many can’t go there; and many would rather die.”

“If they would rather die,” said Scrooge, “they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Interpretations of “A Christmas Carol” have often tried to turn it into an assault on the wealthy, critiquing capitalism’s effect on society. It is not. There is nothing wrong with being very wealthy in Dickens’ book. The two good men raising money for the poor are capitalists and entrepreneurs. They are “portly” in a time when food was scarce and people starved on the streets.

The evil in society comes from indifference towards fellow people and a reliance on a governmental system that does more harm than good.

Take for instance the “Treadmill” and “Poor Law” mentioned above.

A treadmill at Brixton Prison in London in the 1800s.

A treadmill at Brixton Prison in London in the 1800s.

The treadmill was a feature in prisons where inmates would walk endlessly, pushing a huge wheel while holding bars at chest height. With every step, the wheel would turn, grinding corn. Prisoners were allowed 12 minutes of break every hour. It was meant to be a form of “preventive punishment” so difficult that that nobody exposed to it would ever risk reoffending.

The Poor Law is a reference to the popular economic theories of Thomas Malthus. Malthus argued that ruinous poverty and starvation were necessary ills, as society could not possibly provide for everyone and death would remove the undesirables from the population. He supported the Poor Law to create workhouses for the poor, as people who were unable to sustain themselves did not have the right to live.

In the fevered haunting of the second night, Scrooge and the Ghost of Christmas Present visit the holiday celebration of Bob Cratchit, with its tiny pudding to serve a family of seven. Bob works 60 hours a week and earns 15 shillings – £89.78 or $120.19 in 2017 dollars.

His son, Tiny Tim, would have died under the Poor Law system. That’s why, of all the Christmas spirits, the Ghost of Christmas Present has the most disdain for Scrooge, mockingly spitting his words back at him.

“God bless us every one!” said Tiny Tim, the last of all.

He sat very close to his father’s side upon his little stool. Bob held his withered little hand in his, as if he loved the child, and wished to keep him by his side, and dreaded that he might be taken from him.

“Spirit,” said Scrooge, with an interest he had never felt before, “tell me if Tiny Tim will live.”

“I see a vacant seat,” replied the Ghost, “in the poor chimney-corner, and a crutch without an owner, carefully preserved. If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, the child will die.”

“No, no,” said Scrooge. “Oh, no, kind Spirit! say he will be spared.”

“If these shadows remain unaltered by the Future, none other of my race,” returned the Ghost, “will find him here. What then? If he be like to die, he had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

Scrooge hung his head to hear his own words quoted by the Spirit, and was overcome with penitence and grief.

It’s easy for Scrooge to feel sorry for Tiny Tim. It’s someone he knows – a single instance with a face and a personality. But it’s harder to feel compassion for large swathes of people, faceless segments of the population hidden away in debtor’s prisons and workhouses. That’s why the Ghost of Christmas Present has more words to throw back as he dies.

“Forgive me if I am not justified in what I ask,” said Scrooge, looking intently at the Spirit’s robe, “but I see something strange, and not belonging to yourself, protruding from your skirts. Is it a foot or a claw!”

“It might be a claw, for the flesh there is upon it,” was the Spirit’s sorrowful reply. “Look here.”

From the foldings of its robe, it brought two children; wretched, abject, frightful, hideous, miserable. They knelt down at its feet, and clung upon the outside of its garment.

“Oh, Man! look here. Look, look, down here!” exclaimed the Ghost.

They were a boy and girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shrivelled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

“Spirit! are they yours?” Scrooge could say no more.

“They are Man’s,” said the Spirit, looking down upon them. “And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it!” cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. “Slander those who tell it ye! Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse! And bide the end!”

“Have they no refuge or resource?” cried Scrooge.

“Are there no prisons?” said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. “Are there no workhouses?”

Note that Ignorance is worse than Want. Want is an immediate need – food to eat, a bed to sleep in. But Ignorance keeps you from ever improving your situation. Without education, children are condemned to a lifetime of poverty, creating a permanent underclass that dooms society as a whole.

As we all know, Scrooge awakes from his last ghostly visit a new man. He buys Bob Cratchit a turkey and pays the two portly men hefty sums to help the poor. Then he goes to celebrate Christmas at a sumptuous party thrown by his wealthy nephew Fred.

Again, “A Christmas Carol” is not an attack on wealth. Scrooge remains wealthy in the end, and the ideal Christmas is a celebration filled with excesses of food, drink and gifts. But it condemns the violence of looking away, ignoring the evils foisted on people who cannot afford to survive in society, and the political structure that keeps mortifying poverty in place.

It’s easy to believe we don’t live in a society with the sheer injustice of Victorian England. But there are many similarities.

A debtor's prison in London.

A debtor’s prison in London.

Two hundred years ago, the United States banned debtors’ prisons, but they still exist today. State and local courts raise money by charging fees to people convicted of crimes. In Washington State, people who are unable to pay parking tickets and fines for low-level offenses are jailed, without options for alternatives or community service.

In prison, people often have to pay for their own incarceration, a debt that follows them when they are freed. Prisons have also become workhouses, paying inmates paltry wages for work while incarcerated. In Washington, inmates earn $0.36 an hour working for private industry, and up to $2.70 an hour working for state-owned industries.

We have a tax system in Washington reliant on property and sales taxes, which affect the poor more than the rich. While the poorest in our state pay 16.8 percent of their income in state and local taxes, the rich pay only 2.4 percent.

Our education system is chronically underfunded, with one of the highest student-teacher ratios in the country. Increasing amounts of money are being funneled out of public schools and into charter schools – cementing Ignorance in the children of families who can’t afford a private education.

In Seattle, we have the third-highest homeless population in the country, even though Seattle is the nation’s 18th-largest city. Black people are being priced out of the city. Seattle is now at a level of income inequality rivaling San Francisco.

Dickens wasn’t against wealth; he was against greed. He was against income inequality so stark that the people at the bottom could barely survive, and that people who could not work were better off dead.

Dickens also believed it’s never too late for redemption. “A Christmas Carol” teaches that people who turn a blind eye to suffering are still inherently good in their deepest heart. They are just unable to put themselves in the shoes of the less fortunate. Or, as I would like to believe happens to many of us, they are so overcome with the enormity of society’s problems that they are stricken with paralysis.

To that, the story provides an elegant solution – enjoy your life, help those around you that you can have an immediate effect on, and work to change a system that propagates destitution.




  • Leave a Reply
    • The Multiple Tragedies of “Skibbereen” ‹

      […] a debtor’s prison, your body was given to anatomists to dissect in the name of science. (from “A Christmas Carol: Sending the Poor to Prison”—The entire article is well worth a […]

      Mar 3 2020 at 4:25 PM

    • Matt

      Do you not realize that capitalism is what causes “the indifference towards fellow people and a reliance on a governmental system that does more harm than good”?

      Dec 4 2020 at 10:36 AM

    • Crystine

      Capitalism does not cause indifference toward our fellow people; a desire to lift oneself above others feeds that inequality, and it sadly happens in any economic system.

      Dec 13 2020 at 7:21 PM

    • Bruce Veale

      One only has to look at places like CA, NYS and NJ to see high income taxes, high property taxes and high sales taxes. Giving Inslee an income tax is just handing him another source of money to tax and he’s never seen a tax he didn’t like.

      Dec 31 2020 at 1:02 PM

    • Simon

      Does anyone know the names of the gentlemen who asked for donations from Scrooge?

      Dec 1 2021 at 3:39 PM

    • Benjamin George Coles

      Mostly I thought this was a good essay, but I felt it skirted some difficult questions, like: Is it OK to live in luxury, while people around you don’t even have the means to meet their basic needs (and, in fact, through no fault of their own, fundamentally – but because of the system you describe)? You do object to greed towards the end of your essay, but that’s one common-sense way you could define greed. Earlier in your essay, you seem to say it’s OK for some to be ‘portly’ while others starve – you seem to say the portly can still be ‘good’ in that case. Isn’t that the same greed you condemn at the end of the essay? If not, how so?
      Also: What exactly qualifies one as ‘wealthy’? Does wealthiness, just conceptually, imply fairly extreme inequality? Or could everyone be wealthy? If resources were sufficiently distributed for everyone to have the means to meet their basic needs, would there be enough left for anyone to be wealthy, in your sense? Or for anyone to live in luxury? If not, what then?

      And as for your interpretation of Dickens… I don’t know. It’s been too long since I read the book. You might be bang on. But I think the material you quote doesn’t quite show what you imply it does. For instance, the fact that those gentlemen were collecting for charity does not necessarily mean they’re ‘good’ in any simple sense, or that Dickens viewed them that way. Dickens may have meant their portliness is to indicate their own hypocrisy. That wouldn’t necessarily mean they’re evil either. Just normal people, with good sides, and bad sides.

      Dec 6 2021 at 10:28 AM

    • Mike

      I love this story. However it isn’t until now at life’s midpoint and all its experiences that has led me to realize our place in the world. Some people argue for the free market and capitalism others fairness and living wages. While others will take advantage of both. All these examples are found here in this story. Amazing it’s reverence in our lifetime.

      Dec 8 2021 at 12:29 PM

    • Bob H.

      The two gentlemen are not named in the Dickens novel.

      Dec 25 2021 at 9:11 PM

    • Gregory

      Capitalism is the allocations of scarce resources that have alternative uses.
      Put differently, it is anger management at reasonable (2%) ratio of risk.

      Jan 12 2023 at 10:20 AM

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