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A (not-so) Wonderful Life

12/16/2013

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, save for his 40-year presence as a decent, generous, selfless individual.

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, save 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 within his family and community benefit all those he touches.

The story is uplifting and moving, in large part because we know so many George Baileys, whose modest 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, Kan. Separated from her husband, who has been looking hard for work for more than a year, she has three children and holds down 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 reduced further. Her two daughters and her son do receive reduced-cost lunches at the school cafeteria, but they often are 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 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 Bailey and her children could obtain reasonable health care and not fear being thrust into bankruptcy.

Moreover, the economic dividends of accepting federal Medicaid funding might well produce a stronger economy that would open up a better job for her.

The U.S. Congress also could help, by providing adequate SNAP (food stamp) assistance so Bailey could come closer to adequately feeding her family. Likewise, Congress could extend long-term unemployment benefits, 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 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 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.

Burdett Loomis is a professor of political science at the University of Kansas.

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