In the 1946 Frank Capra classic, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” small-town banker George Bailey discovers what a disaster the town of Bedford Falls would have become were it not for his 40-year presence as a decent, generous, selfless individual.
It’s a timeless, romantic story, one that dignifies the worth of millions of similar folks who have seamlessly affected the lives of those who surround them. As a Christmas movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life” has no peer, as we find solace in the essential goodness of a man whose actions in his family and community ben-efit all those he touches.
The story is uplifting and moving, in large part be-cause we know so many George Baileys whose mod-est acts of kindness build one upon another.
But for many in our midst, the “what could have been” lessons of the film operate in reverse.
Consider the hypothetical case of Bailey George, a young mother living in Bedford Plains, Kansas. Separated from her husband, who has been looking hard for work for more than a year, she has three children and holds two jobs, as a waitress and part-time janitor, in her struggle to make ends meet.
She gets by, but barely. Her family has no health care, yet she earns too much to obtain Medicaid; she does qualify for food stamps, but those have been cut back and will be further reduced. Her two daughters and her son do receive reduced-cost lunches at school, but they are often hungry at month’s end.
When her car broke down a few months ago, Bailey George took out a payday loan to cover the repairs. Now she owes more than she borrowed, even though she usually can make the minimum weekly payment. And when her rent check is a day late or her checking account is overdrawn by a dollar, she must pay a hefty penalty.
In “It’s a Wonderful Life,” an angel earns his wings by saving George Bailey. But who are the earthly angels who might save Bailey George?
In Kansas this year, she would need Gov. Sam Brownback and the Kansas Legislature to do some of the heavy lifting, most notably by agreeing to expand Medicaid so that someone of her financial status could qualify. This would not take much from the governor and his legislative sidekicks.
Accepting the federal government’s offer, through the Affordable Health Care Act, would mean that Bailey and her children could obtain reason-able health care and not fear being thrust into bankruptcy.
Moreover, the economic divi-dends of federal Medicaid funding might well produce a stronger economy that would open up a better job for her.
The U.S. Congress could also help, by providing adequate SNAP (food stamp) assistance so that Bailey could come closer to really feeding her family. Likewise, Congress could extend long-term unemployment bene-fits so her husband could help with some bills. And it could raise the minimum wage so her janitorial job might pay a few more dollars per week.
In addition, both federal and state lawmakers could do more to limit hefty fees and prevent usurious payday lenders from charging rates that often drive desperate borrowers further into poverty.
All this could happen. Indeed, most of these measures either have been policy in the past (SNAP) or are currently policy outside Kansas (expanded Medicaid and higher minimum wages). Even so, this would scarcely constitute a “wonderful life,” but it would be a bit more bearable.
In Bailey George’s fictitious but all too real Bedford Plains, there is no angel, only the cloudy vision of a slightly better life that has been denied her and her family.
As we celebrate again this Christmas the heartwarming tale of the fictional George Bailey, we must keep all the real-life Bailey Georges and their hard lives in our hearts and minds.