Being compassionate when compassion ain’t cool

 By Alan Bean

Charles Blow says America has become a heartless nation (see his column below).  Ask the person on the street for the primary reason for poverty in America and 24% will tell you it’s because welfare prevents initiative.  Another 18% will blame crummy schools.  Then its family breakdown (13%), and lack of a work ethic (also 13%).  These are all explanations endorsed by the conservative movement.

You won’t hear any of the issues favored by progressive Americans until you work much further down the list.  Lack of government programs checks in at 10%, and persistent racism polls at a dismal 2%.  Unless people of color were excluded from the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll (an unlikely prospect), the liberal diagnosis of society’s ills doesn’t even appear to be playing well in the minority community.

It’s not enough to lament that America has become “a town without pity” (for younger readers, that’s an allusion to an old Gene Pitney song inspired by a 1961 movie).  In the 1960s, an American president could launch a war on poverty without worrying too much about the political fallout.  Then America’s glory years were overtaken by an era of economic anxiety.  When people worry about money, they turn inward and politicians follow suit.

Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty assumed that poverty is a problem rooted in bad public policy decisions.  That being so, poverty could be solved with a little American ingenuity.

We don’t think that way anymore.  A highly organized, disciplined and well-funded movement has convinced most Americans that poverty is a dysfunctional dance between pandering politicians and the beneficiaries of the civil rights movement.   In trying to fix the poverty problem, the argument goes, we inadvertently robbed poor Negroes of the incentive to work.

This kind of thinking appeals to White people for two simple reasons: it means that the plight of the poor can’t be laid at the door of “society” (ergo, we’re off the hook), and it means that government poverty programs will always make things worse (ergo, we’re off the hook again).  Poor people have no one to blame but themselves and the pandering politicians they vote into office.

This was the heart of Mitt Romney’s unfortunate 46% remark during the 2012 election.  We don’t like to hear public officials get too explicit about this stuff.  We prefer hints, code words, and innuendo.  But the folks who think this way have their act together and the faithful remnant of 1960s populism does not.

Charles Blow wonders why so few politicians are rising up on behalf of the American poor.  Why don’t they talk about the working poor?  Why don’t they talk about the shrinking middle class?  Why don’t they pick up on Occupy Wall Street’s terrific 1%/99% divide?

The answer is simple.  Politicians read the polls.  They know that kind of talk, while it fires up the tiny liberal base, doesn’t play well in Peoria.  So Democrats mumble in their beer about wanting to give folks a hand up not a hand out while fighting to limit cuts to existing programs.

None of this is particularly surprising.  The bias against the poor Charles Blow references is the default position for us humans.  We are born biased.  It’s natural, unavoidable and, to a certain extent, necessary.  Our lizard brains are programmed to divide humanity into good/bad, safe/dangerous, and lovely/ugly categories and we make these distinctions in half-a-heart beat.

But bias is only a problem when it is unacknowledged.  If we know we’re prone to snap judgments and irrational prejudice against people who aren’t like us, our better angels have a fighting chance.

The success of the “nothing can be done about poverty” dogma is the result of a strategic movement that started when the hardhearted politics of today sounded retrograde and mean-spirited.   People were conservative when conservatism wasn’t cool.

Nothing less than a movement rooted in compassion can recapture the heart of middle America and I don’t see it starting in the political arena.

It breaks my heart to see Christian churches marching in lock step with the prevailing orthodoxy, but, again, this is precisely what we should expect.  Most Christians have no idea that their Bible calls for a radical commitment to the poor.  They don’t hear it much from their pastors because issues like public safety, immigration, poverty and homelessness because religious leaders, especially in deeply Red states like Texas, regard social issues as the third rail of church politics–touch it and you die.  Pastors get some good religion in ethics class, but after a year or two into your first paying religious gig the ivory tower stuff washes away.

The church is a natural institution that takes its cue from the larger society.  But the church becomes a supernatural institution when it remembers that Jesus came preaching good news to the poor.

‘A Town Without Pity’

August 9, 2013


America was once the land of Lady Liberty, beckoning the world: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

No more.

Today’s America — at least as measured by the actions and inactions of the pariahs who roam its halls of power and the people who put them there — is insular, cruel and uncaring.

In this America, people blame welfare for creating poverty rather than for mitigating the impact of it. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in June found that the No. 1 reason people gave for our continuing poverty crisis was: “Too much welfare that prevents initiative.”

In this America, the House can — as it did in July — pass a farm bill that left out the food stamp program at a time when a record number of Americans, nearly 48 million, are depending on the benefits.

In this America, a land of immigrants, comprehensive immigration reform can be stalled in The People’s Branch of government, and anti-reform mouthpieces like Ann Coulter and Pat Buchanan can warn that immigration reform will be the end of the country.

And in today’s America, poverty and homelessness can easily seep beneath the wall we erect in our minds to define it.

A December report by the United States Conference of Mayors that surveyed 25 cities found that all but 4 of them reported an increase in requests for emergency food aid since 2011, and three-fourths of them expected those requests to increase in 2013.

The report also found that 60 percent of the cities surveyed had seen an increase in homelessness, and the same percentage of cities expected homelessness to increase in 2013.

But poverty isn’t easily written off as an inner-city ailment. It has now become a suburban problem. A report this week by the Brookings Institution found that “during the 2000s, major metropolitan suburbs became home to the largest and fastest-growing poor population in America.”

Nor can economic insecurity be written off as a minorities-only issue. According to survey results published last month by The Associated Press:

“Nonwhites still have a higher risk of being economically insecure, at 90 percent. But compared with the official poverty rate, some of the biggest jumps under the newer measure are among whites, with more than 76 percent enduring periods of joblessness, life on welfare or near-poverty.”

How did we come to such a pass? Why aren’t more politicians —  and people in general — expressing outrage and showing empathy?

Part of our current condition is obviously partisan. Republicans have become the party of “blame the victim.” Whatever your lesser lot in life, it’s completely within your means to correct, according to their logic. Poverty, hunger, homelessness and desperation aren’t violence to the spirit but motivation to the will. If you want more and you work harder, all your problems will disappear. Sink or swim. Pull yourself up. Get over it. Of course, that narrow conservative doctrine denies a broader reality: that there are working poor and chronically unemployed — people who do want and who do work and who do want to work, but who remain stuck on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder.

In this regard, Republicans have all but abandoned the idea of compassionate conservatism and are diving headlong into callous conservatism.

But another problem may be more broad-based: the way that many Americans look at the poor with disgust.

As Susan Fiske, a Princeton professor who has studied people’s attitudes toward the poor for more than a decade, told me on Friday:

“The stereotypes of poor people in the United States are among the most negative prejudices that we have. And people basically view particularly homeless people as having no redeeming qualities — there’s not the competence for anything, not having good intentions and not being trustworthy.”

Fiske’s research shows that people respond not only to the poor and homeless with revulsion, but they also react negatively to people they perceive as undocumented immigrants — essentially anyone without an address.

If some people’s impulse is to turn up a nose rather than extend a hand, no wonder we send so many lawmakers empty of empathy to Congress. No wonder more people don’t demand that Congress stand up for the least among us rather than on them.

As Fiske so aptly put it: “It seems like Washington is a place without pity right now. A town without pity.”

One thought on “Being compassionate when compassion ain’t cool

  1. This morning I played golf with a tall black man, whom I had never met. With only two of us playing, there was more opportunity to talk. I quickly perceived him as intelligent and well spoken. He appeared to be in his mid 50s. Responding to my question, he said he was a Methodist pastor, having served multiple congregations over time. Responding to my question about the low high school graduation rate of black students, he agreed it is a serious problem that feeds poverty and crime. As a black pastor, he has been called to criminal court to give mitigating testimony about a young male’s support system and his chances to get back on the right path. When I raised the issue of 70% of black babies being born to unmarried females, he responded that Lyndon Johnson’s anti poverty programs emasculated the black male by enabling females to rise children without fathers. When I asked if there is discussion of this in the black community, he replied in the affirmative.

    He expressed one opinion that surprised me. He believes that integration of
    Public schools actually hurt black education. I am still puzzling over that. Rain interrupted golf so that I did not question the reason for that opinion.

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