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BEWARE OF FAT, JOLLY GUYS BEARING PRESENTS; SOMETIMES GIFTS AREN'T WHAT THEY SEEM

Santa has quite a sense of humor.

We should have recognized that early on when we raced downstairs on Christmas morning and were overjoyed that the spiffy new toy was indeed under the tree.

But just as we were poised to make it perform all of those amazing feats pictured on the box, the warnings "batteries not included" or "some assembly required" jumped up to suck the life right out of the day.

It was the first time we learned a hard lesson: Gifts aren't always what they seem.

Now, some people are learning that lesson many Christmases later, as the jolly old fat man works his tricks again.

Consider, for instance, that Santa:

Left the Our Market Steering Committee a big, shiny box with a bright red ribbon and lots of pretty wrapping. The name tag said it came courtesy of Mayor Masiello.

But when they opened it up this morning, the box was empty -- just like the mayor's promise to give the group $5,500.

The money was supposed to help the grass-roots committee with its unflagging effort to open a community-owned, cooperative grocery store on the East Side. Masiello promised the money way back before the November mayoral election, but the committee has yet to see a dime.

Oh well, maybe it's the thought that counts.

In the meantime, the committee -- which many in City Hall probably thought would have disappeared by now -- is into its third year and shows no signs of giving up.

Kept at arm's length by the city, the group is continuing efforts to solidify community backing for the project.

A telethon is being planned, seed money is being solicited from a public-spirited bank and a community meeting and other events are being put together for Black History Month to raise the project's profile and solicit memberships. An alternative financing scheme also is being probed for the $4.6 million project.

In the end, a lot of little elves may yet do what Santa, City Hall and the chain supermarkets have failed to do for this underserved community.

Santa was much better to the rest of the country than he was to the East Side. After all, he left the lowest unemployment rate in the past 24 years under the nation's tree.

But just like your average Grinch, schizophrenic Santa doesn't want us thanking him for this Christmas gift. After all, it ruins the holidays for bond-holders and others who won't think it's such a wonderful life if seasonal cheer for job seekers forces the Scrooges at the Federal Reserve Board to hike interest rates soon.

Somebody spiked the eggnog at the Fed party last week with news of the Asian market turmoil. Either that or a Frank Capra-like concern for the holiday fortunes of working people (take your pick) prompted Fed governors to temporarily hold off on any interest-rate hike right now.

But a hike is likely to come soon, on the theory that the economy must be slowed before the fact that too many people are working forces up wages and prices. When that happens, the economy will nose-dive and working people will wonder what they were so thankful for.

As it is, Santa has been stingy with jobs for some groups, such as blacks, whose 9.6 percent unemployment rate is two-and-a-half times that of whites. And for black teens, the 33.9 percent unemployment rate is twice that of teens as a whole.

Clearly, St. Nick continues to skip some houses when handing out the gift of opportunity, no matter how many jobs are in his sack.

Santa's other gift to the nation -- falling welfare rolls -- comes with just as many strings. In fact, it may have to be returned after the holidays as more becomes known about what's actually happening to those people.

The increase in business at food pantries this holiday season indicates that many of those leaving the social service rolls may be ending up as charity cases rather than success stories. That means the crisis may be yet to come as the charities soon find themselves overwhelmed.

And even as taxpayers celebrate the gift of smaller caseloads, they have to wonder whether this is just another of Santa's tricks.

Not only must they wonder where the recipients are going, but they have to look warily at programs that try to depress wages for all employees by pushing welfare workers into jobs that union workers used to do.

When it comes to building a welfare-reform model that really accomplishes its goals without harming other workers, it's clear that -- just as with many of Santa's toys -- there's a lot of assembly still required.

The holiday lesson in all of this is clear: Beware of fat, jolly guys -- or anyone else -- bearing gifts. Sometimes presents aren't always what they seem.

Either that, or Santa's one sadistic old coot.

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