The tween worked six days a week, dawn till dusk, for the price of two movie tickets - a comparison that makes me feel terrible for whining at my daughter about how much hard-earned cash we blew to see Cars 2. In the big picture, is money really "hard-earned" if you aren't bitten by rats mid-shift?
For Dickens, 60 hours a week sticking things on pots while rodents gnawed him, all because his dad came up a bit short, was a "formative experience." If it happened now, we'd call it felony child abuse.
That job, the horrid schools he attended (when he could), and the suffering all around him led Dickens to crusade against a system in which so many had no chance, and so few among the well-off cared. Victorian England was a society in which members of the underclass had no rights and few opportunities. They could be crushed without a peep, and often were.
Wealth disparity was a big issue 2,000 years ago (see Jesus), and 200 years ago, though it's more harped on now. But would Jesus and Dickens think our poor poor?
In the United States, many of the poor live in climate-controlled homes. They have television and, often, cable. Plenty have cars. If they lack a computer and Internet service, they have access to a library where such things are free. Many of our impoverished are fat.
The homeless problem in America is more about addiction and mental illness than a lack of available help. The recession has put families on the street, but homelessness is not a widespread condition in our society.
School is free. Governments pick up much of the tab for state and community colleges. Debtors face foreclosure, but unless they've committed fraud, they aren't imprisoned.
Dickens would have laughed at the idea that everyone deserves the same opportunity. The whole point of success is to give your children unusually good opportunities. He would have argued only that the poor deserve a decent chance to advance, fair rights, a voice, and a way to rebound when things go bad.
But the inequality issue, in a modern, democratic nation, is about the size of the gap. To have a stable, free society, as the richest get richer, the poorest must, too.
Dickens, seeing how the United States and his native land treat the underprivileged today, would likely think his battle won. Yet creating fair opportunities didn't end poverty.
People are not equal. Some seize opportunities others squander. Today, 200 years after the birth of Dickens, the issue is not whether the poor should have a chance, but whether the government should provide them a somewhat comfortable life even if they blow that chance.
The answer, oddly, is yes - but to benefit the rich as much as the poor. If the gap between the haves and have-nots grows too large, a free society cannot be stable - and the principal beneficiaries of a stable society are the well-off.
Lane Filler is a member of the editorial board of Newsday.