That Christmas the one thing Ruthie Parker wanted more than anything else was what every kid in the neighborhood of Lower Middle Brackett dreamed of -- comprehensive health insurance.
"Oh, Ruthie," said Mrs. Parker at the breakfast table, her eyes twinkling in amusement. "Don't you remember what happened to your cousin Ralphie last Christmas?"
"Of course I do," Ruthie said. "He finally got that Red Ryder BB gun he'd always wanted. "
"Ah, but then what happened?" asked Mrs. Parker. "He put his eye out, that's what, and there wasn't a darn thing his parents could do about it. How many times do I have to tell you? For 43 million of us, there is no such thing as health insurance. Not even catastrophic." She tousled her daughter's hair and gazed in wonderment as it floated down to the kitchen floor in great drifts, like snow.
"But Bobby Brady's family has health insurance," said Ruthie, as her father rummaged through the kitchen drawers to find the glue stick.
"Yes, but Bobby's family is rich," Mr. Parker said, as he hastily reattached clumps of hair to Ruthie's skull. "Besides, they're all fit as fiddles, so they really don't need to use their policy. Why, if one of 'em got so much as a paper cut, the insurers would kick them out in no time."
"But Kimberly at school told me that her family has health insurance. She says her daddy got it for them."
"Her daddy?" asked Mrs. Parker, eyes widening. "I didn't even know Kimberly had a daddy, did you, honey?"
"I've heard rumors," said Mr. Parker, "but no one's actually ever seen him."
"That's because Kimberly's daddy works three jobs," Ruthie explained. "See, for a while he and Kimberly's mommy were doing fine with just one job for him and two for her. But Kimberly's mommy didn't qualify for benefits because she only worked 30 hours a week at each of her two jobs. Then the company Kimberly's daddy worked for charged him more for his own benefits and stopped offering a discount for his wife and kids. So he got a second job to pay for their insurance, but then the monthly rate jumped up from $300 a month to more than $900 and pretty soon it was costing them more than their mortgage. So now he just works all the time."
"Gee," Mr. Parker said. "He sure is lucky. Imagine finding three jobs in this economy. He must make at least 33 grand."
"I wish I could find another job," said Mrs. Parker dreamily, remembering the days when she earned almost $15,000 a year at the grocery store. But that was before the big strike. As reps for the supermarket chains had explained, when profits for the last five years alone hit $8 billion, what other choice did they have but to cap wages of new employees at $14.90 an hour, even after six years, and cut healthcare benefits by 50 percent, the better to dismantle them completely?
Just then Ruthie's little brother Randy limped into the room.
"Hey, there's my little ball of fire!" Mr. Parker greeted him, as he poured generic cornflakes into a bowl. "I know, I know -- nothing for you. Still having trouble swallowing, eh kid?"
"Now, Randy, bundle up before you stagger off to school," Mrs. Parker said. "You don't want that tumor getting cold. My, it's getting so big."
"Want me to drop you off, Randy boy?" Mr. Parker asked. "It's on my way to my new job at the cellphone company. Good thing I got that six-month contract after the old textile mill shut down and then--"
"And then you retrained for high tech, only it tanked--," recited Ruthie.
"And then you got hired by that big utilities conglomerate, and that went bye-bye--," Mrs. Parker joined in.
"Taking our life savings and leaving massive credit card debt," Ruthie added in a singsong voice. "Daddy, we've heard that story a hundred times before."
"Duh, you and millions of others," teased her father, as he looked at her fondly, using what remained of his peripheral vision. It helped to believe that as long as he did nothing about it, his macular degeneration might eventually go away.
"Hey, did I tell you?" he piped up, eager to provide his family with an atmosphere of forced cheer. "I just found out my company's going international! It's all very hush-hush, but yesterday I heard the owners telling my manager that my entire department would soon feel the effects."
"That sounds promising," murmured Mrs. Parker.
"They even said something about offshore subsidies. Golly, I've always wanted to live at the beach. What do you say, kids? Want Santa to bring you some swim fins? How about you, little Rita?" he said to the youngest Parker, who had just appeared.
"All I wan' for Cwithmuth is my new fwont teef," said little Rita. "Or any teef."
"Sorry, punkin," Mrs. Parker said. "Malnutrition is a bitch, but you'll just have to suck it up like your big brother and sister. Isn't that right, Ruthie?"
"What? I couldn't hear you. Tell Randy to stop rattling his lungs so loud."
"Now, kids, remember my blood pressure -- oh, look who's here!" said Mrs. Parker.
"Grandma!" everybody shouted. "What brings you here on a weekday?"
"Well, now that I'm over 55 and, according to media stereotypes, spending my days sitting on a porch swing with a crocheted blanket over my legs and not a care in the world, I've decided to write a children's book. Of course, I'm no vacuous celebrity, but I still think it turned out OK."
"Let me see," Ruthie said. "How the Gingrich Stole Christmas and How the AARP Helped: A Pharmaceutical-Soaked Tale of Betrayal. Sounds fun."
"Whuth AARP?" said little Rita.
"Avaricious Admirers of Regressive Policies," Ruthie hissed. "Now hush up or I'll perforate your other ear. Grandma, will there be any mass merchandising tie-ins?"
"Are you kidding? At this rate there won't even be drug benefits, the very thing the new Medicare bill would supposedly add. You see, kids," she explained, playfully crumpling the grocery list she would not be needing anymore, "the AARP feels that the best cure for the high cost of prescription medicines is to allow the pharmaceutical industry to charge any price they like. I guess I can see their point. After all, it's one thing to gouge, starve, abuse and neglect millions of human beings, but 'stifle innovation'? That's just sick."
"Gosh, Grandma," Ruthie said, "you and the other 35 million members of AARP should form an organization that actually advocates for seniors instead of selling them out like cheap cordwood."
"We thought we had," Grandma said, "right up until we found out that AARP receives more than $100 million in revenue from health insurers."
"Are any of them hiring?" asked Mrs. Parker timidly.
Grandma sighed, "I guess there's nothing left but to tear up this useless AARP card..."
"Noooo!" cried little Rita. "You sthill have one benefit left, Gwandma -- the hotel dithcount."
"She's right," Ruthie said. "Now that Grandpa's pension isn't worth crap, you'll soon be trading your condo for a motel room with a view of the underpass."
"Actually," Grandma said, "I was counting on moving in with you lot."
"Before or after the foreclosure," said Mrs. Parker.
Suddenly, the sound of their roof falling in caught their attention. As they gazed upward, they saw a jolly man stuffed into a big suit zooming past in a sleigh.
"Santa!" the children exclaimed.
"Sorry, kids," the jolly man shouted, patting the sacks at his feet. "I need every dollar of this $102 million and counting just to get reelected, and then I'm gonna have a whole lotta presents to hand out, and I don't see your names on the list. On, Rangers! On, Mavericks! On, bundlers and funders!"
"But we need health insurance!" hollered Ruthie. And jobs, and education, and environmental protections, she said to herself, not wanting to push her luck. But the jolly man was already far, far away.
"Thith Cwithmuth weelly blowth," said little Rita.
"Yeah, you can stitch that one on a needlepoint," Grandma agreed.
"Aw, c'mon, you guys," Mr. Parker said. "It's nearly Christmas, for chrissakes. Sure, times have been tough on Lower Middle Brackett. But hey, I work for a major corporation that has survived the recession thanks to the extraordinarily high productivity of American workers who've put up with pay cut after pay cut. Why, they wouldn't dream of selling us out just to boost their profits by millions of dollars!"
The phone rang.
"OK, I'll tell him," Ruthie said moments later. "Dad, it was the office. The bad news is, they were calling from India."
"And the good news?"
"You've been promoted to 'permanent unpaid overtime.'"
"Hot dog!" said Mr. Parker. "What's it pay?"
"They said your reality check is in the mail."
"For them? Plenty. For you, not so much."
"See, kids?" cried Mr. Parker. "Everything's swell! Now, Ruthie, what does your ol' pop always say?"
"Uh, Every time the bells of freedom ring, a CEO goes ka-ching?" said Ruthie.
"Every human being who can afford it has the right to purchase life, liberty and happiness?"
"No," said Mr. Parker, "I say: God help us. God help us, every one."