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This supposedly uplifting Christmas show is actually a cruel experiment on poor children

Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

In America, poor people are expected to prove their worth. Their right to not be poor is always contingent on their behaving like good, upright citizens, even when the middle class and rich get benefits with no strings attached. That's why the 1996 welfare reform law allowed states to drug-test applicants and recipients, but no one has ever been drug tested for claiming the mortgage interest deduction. It's why most states restrict access to food stamps and welfare for at least some people with felony drug convictions, even as rich people with drug records can get millions in charitable deductions.

But it's rare that these cruel tests are applied to the behavior of children. However, Up TV — a cable channel probably best known for its reruns of 7th Heaven, Gilmore Girls, and Growing Pains — has stepped up to the plate with a super-manipulative viral video meant to test the virtue of poor kids.

The setup is this: All the kids say what they want for Christmas (a laptop, an Xbox, etc.) and then what they think their parents want for Christmas (a coffeemaker, a ring, etc.). They are then presented with both items and told they could only keep one. Either they keep their own present, like selfish gits, or they get a gift for the whole family. And when the featured participants choose the family gift, they're told that they're being rewarded with both.

In the YouTube comments, Up TV clarified that even children who chose "wrong" got to keep both gifts, but also proudly noted that 80 percent of the kids passed the moral test set forth by the people responsible for daytime showings of Touched by an Angel:

Seriously, fuck these people UP TV / YouTube

But this is definitely not how the consequences are presented in the video. "Because you actually picked the gift for your family, you're actually going to go home with both," the Milgram-esque experimenter tells a participant about two minutes, 26 seconds in. The whole setup is a mind game meant to measure how selfish or selfless the kids are, and then present them with a reward if they picked "right."

Right upfront, Up TV wants you to know that these kids are poor: "83% of Metro Atlanta Boys & Girls Clubs kids come from low-income families," a title card at the start of the video explains, "some of which aren't able to afford even a Christmas tree." A nice thing to do for these families would be to just give them Christmas trees. Or presents. Or even — here's a wild idea — give the parents money and let them decide if their family is best served by spending it on Christmas, or on heating bills, or on rent, or some other need.

This video does not involve that kind of no-strings-attached, no-questions-asked giving. It does not display that level of trust in the poor. The act of charity only occurs after the children have demonstrated their worth. And the video wouldn't work at all if the kids were rich. Scarcity is a problem of poverty. An upper-middle-class family wouldn't have to choose between a coffee maker and a "My Life As" doll. They could afford both. But when you're doing this experiment with poor kids, the choice is stark. They're not going to just buy the gift they don't choose. They can't. That's the whole point.

The video is being presented as somehow uplifting, a grand testament to the power of selflessness. But preaching a gospel of self-sacrifice to those who already have next to nothing is cruel and perverse, and plays into centuries of demonization of poor people. While the children are expected to be selfless, the network's gift is anything but.

If Up TV really thinks gift giving is important, that helping others sight unseen is a virtue, maybe it should give some money to poor families in Kenya and Uganda through GiveDirectly. Or give kids in sub-Saharan Africa antimalarial bednets through the Against Malaria Foundation. Or get children access to deworming tablets through the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative or the Deworm the World Initiative. That would be selfless. What's happening here is much uglier.