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Operation Santa Is a Horror Story About American Poverty

Children have written requesting money for their parents, a bed to sleep in, and a better wheelchair to help them get around. There’s nothing feel-good about it.

Fred Morley/Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On a cloudy Christmas Eve in 1907, Mary McGann, a 10-year-old Irish girl living in Hell’s Kitchen with her younger brother and mother, wrote a letter to Santa Claus. “I am very glad that you are coming around tonight. My little brother would like you to bring him a wagon which I know you cannot afford. I will ask you to bring him whatever you think…. Please bring me something nice (sic) what you think best,” she asked. “P.S. Please do not forget the poor.” 

The letter never made it to Santa; it was discovered 90 years later stashed in between the bricks of the tenement’s fireplace. But that same year, the New York City branch of the USPS informally implemented “Operation Santa,” an unusually whimsical government program that allowed Postal Service employees (and volunteers with the “Santa Claus Association”) to respond, as Santa, to the thousands of New York children attempting to contact St. Nick. Postmaster Frank Hitchcock would integrate the program in 1912 to include the entirety of the Post Office, making “Operation Santa” an official government program. After 1940, the program allowed charitable organizations, private firms, and laypeople to “adopt” the letters of kids living in poverty and fulfill their Christmas wishes. The film Miracle on 34th Street references the endeavor, and Johnny Carson made a habit of reading some of the letters on The Tonight Show. The program has grown to the point where it connected 13,000 children to donors, a total that may well be doubled in 2020. This year, the letters have been digitized, and if you’re interested in adopting a letter, you can go to the Operation Santa website and browse through the hopes and desires of thousands of children across the country. 

But what these letters demonstrate, far better than any PSA or statistical model, is how violent American poverty truly is. They also provide a counterbalance to the ways childhood poverty is depicted in popular media, where poor kids often serve as a way for a protagonist to demonstrate their generosity, from Tiny Tim in A Christmas Carol to the demented poverty porn of the holiday pop hit “Christmas Shoes.”  

Scrolling through the photocopied and slightly redacted letters—inscribed with the chunky block letters unique to children—one is confronted with brief yet startling descriptions of desperate need:

Dear Santa, I want one thing. (sic) I been a good girl and I want to ask you if you please get me a power wheelchair. My wheelchair is very old and it does not want to work. I am very sad. Please Santa, bring me a power wheelchair. I don’t want nothing else.

Dear Santa ... My wish is money for my (sic) perents. $100 dollars would help us a lot. They are having a rough time with the bills.” 

Dear Santa, how are you and your reindeer? It must be cool riding a sled in the sky.... this year for Christmas I would really like a couch that is also a bed. The reason I would like a couch with a bed is because I have a[n] apartment that only has one room. My parents sleep in the living room on the couch and they always wake up with back pain. My dad works a lot, so his back pain stresses him out.” 

Even prior to the pandemic, the United States lagged other developed nations in child poverty levels. More than one out of every five American children lives in poverty, according to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development data. As the pandemic continues to exacerbate the underlying crisis of American poverty, 45 percent of all children now live in households that have recently struggled with routine expenses, according to a report out this month from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, or CBPP. Black and Latino households have been especially impacted by the economic starvation that the mishandling of this pandemic has wrought, and these populations were already disproportionately likely to grow up poor.

But it’s long been easy for most upper middle-class people to ignore poverty, especially child poverty. Americans like to think of themselves as generous people; we don’t want to imagine that there are little girls writing to Santa for a new wheelchair.

When the political scientist and activist Michael Harrington wrote The Other America, his seminal 1962 study of American poverty, he intentionally undercounted the amount of poor citizens because he thought his readership would not accept such astonishing numbers. He couldn’t even believe it himself: “I had all the statistics down on paper. I had proved to my satisfaction that there were around 50,000,000 poor in this country. Yet, I realized I did not believe my own figures. The poor existed in Government reports; they were percentages and numbers in long, close columns, but they were not part of my experience. I could prove that the other America existed, but I had never been there.”

Operation Santa wasn’t intended as a means to expose people to the stark realities of material deprivation. But it’s unnerving to realize just how many of these letters there are. Each one represents a failure of the American system and a failure of the ideology that says that anyone who is poor has failed.

“We don’t want to be responsible for them. A very wise historian, Michael Katz, wrote that ‘poverty is the third rail of American politics.’ We don’t like to talk about poverty in America, and we don’t like to deal with it,” Jeff Madrick, a veteran journalist and author of Invisible Americans: The Tragic Cost of Childhood Poverty, told me. 

“And I’m including the Democrats here,” Katz continued. “Democrats hardly ever talked about child poverty until recently. And I include Hillary Clinton, in that she didn’t mention child poverty very much in her 2016 electoral campaign. The reason is not merely that they are insensitive, but they think it’s bad for electoral politics, because people don’t want to hear about it.”

The irony is that childhood poverty is expensive. For all the bipartisan efforts to reduce cash payments to poor families and the constant hand-wringing about federal deficits, chronic child impoverishment costs the United States a trillion dollars, or 5 percent of our GDP, annually. Madrick explains that the human and economic cost manifests in a variety of ways: lower high school and college graduation rates, lower productivity at work, higher healthcare costs and incarceration rates, and rampant mental health problems caused by the stress and trauma of impoverishment. 

Thanks to Operation Santa, Vicky, the girl who asked for a new power wheelchair, may be connected with a charitable organization that can help her. Many thousands of poor people will be helped in this way by holiday-season generosity. But the needs of impoverished children can’t be met by charity alone; the scale of poverty is too massive. Even the Gates Foundation, a titan in the private philanthropy world, admits this. In All the Money in the World, a 2008 look at the 1 percent, Patty Stonesifer, a former chief of the foundation, is quoted as saying,“Our giving is a drop in the bucket compared to the government’s responsibility.”

The solutions to child poverty are not mysterious. Socialists, liberals, and leftists have long advocated for more generous benefits to families that would alleviate some of the financial burden many parents currently shoulder alone. Last year, Matt Bruenig of the People’s Policy Project released “The Family Fun Pack,” a comprehensive family welfare plan that would dramatically supplement the immense costs of raising a family in the United States: material supplies and paid parental leave are paired with free pre-K, childcare, health care, and a $300 monthly allowance. “The easiest solution to the problems posed by family life under capitalism is to levy broad-based taxes and then use the revenues from those taxes to fund a set of benefits that provide resources to families with children,” Bruenig wrote.

Even more moderate Democrats have backed proposals that could radically reduce child poverty. On the campaign trail, Joe Biden endorsed expanding Section 8 housing vouchers to cover all families who qualify, which would effectively cut child poverty by a third. Kamala Harris’s LIFT the Middle Class Act would replace the Trump-era tax cuts with large tax credits to low- and middle-income households who work. 

Other ideas include making the child tax credit fully refundable, which would help extremely low-income families, and boosting SNAP (commonly called food stamps), according to Danilo Trisi, the Director of Poverty and Inequality Research at CBPP, explained. “Expanding SNAP benefits will do a lot in terms of also reducing child poverty because the way that SNAP is structured, it does not reach those families with the lowest incomes,” Trisi said.“Between housing assistance, tax credits, and food assistance, any of those three things could really make a significant dent on poverty.” 

America’s political and economic institutions have left children like Vicky in impossible conditions. What the Operation Santa letters show us is that not only is her struggle a common experience for millions of American children but that their circumstances are artificial. Poverty is not some abstraction or a phenomena only relevant during the holidays but rather a material consequence of deliberate policy choices. It would be possible for the government to make a serious effort to alleviate childhood poverty, but it’s a task far too big for Santa.