The empathy deficit

Sorry for the lack of posts this week. Call it post-vacation stress. But you might also call it discretion. I held back from posting a rather angry, ranting post. I’ve rewritten it probably three times already. Here’s the latest version:

I flew back to Pittsburgh on Sunday evening and promptly set my watch ahead 3 hours. Wow. Where did the day go? Then, bright and early on Monday morning (ugh!), I read something during breakfast that someone had posted on Facebook…

It was posted by a friend of mine from my days in the Chicago area. Well, she really was not much more than an acquaintance. Our families didn’t hang out together. We went to the same church. I’ve only spoken with her a couple of times. I knew her husband better. I’m not sure what was more offensive about this, the part that compares poor people to wild animals or its snarky, condescending “This ends today’s lesson,” which cowardly runs away from all forms of conversation or debate. I’m not interested in hearing what anyone else has to say. No, siree. I’m too busy being all correct and self-righteous. It made my skin crawl.

I responded with my own snarky comment. Something like this: “Oh, so feeding poor children (half the recipients of food stamps) will keep them from pulling trout from streams?”

But I was outdone by a friend of hers, a single mother with a cancer-surviving 9-year-old child. This women had a part-time job and depended on food stamps to make ends meet. You can’t tell from her post if this was a past situation or ongoing. But she was doubly offended for the both of us to see her friend suggesting that she was “dependent on handouts.” She let her friend have it. Good for her. My friend has since removed her post. Good for her.

And the thing is, the woman who posted this is not a cruel or mean person. She is a good mother. She is a Christian. If you met her, you’d think she was a kind and friendly woman. But in this moment, she was found lacking in basic human empathy.

I’d like to think that perhaps she learned a lesson about going for the laugh with a cheap attack instead of using her imagination to comprehend the different circumstances under which someone might be on food stamps. Maybe she’s been desensitized by those shouting, sarcastic, self-righteous, and, generally, error-riddled email chains you get from your conservative friends and family. (Liberals don’t seem to engage in the email chain letters filled with false facts. Hmm.) Maybe she was just going for the approving high-fives from the Tea Party crowd — after all, the post did have 4 or 5 “likes.” I just wish that these folks would use their imaginations a little bit, walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, and have a little bit of compassion. That’s COM- (meaning “with”) and -PASSION (meaning “to suffer”). Before we can even think about solving problems, we need to “suffer with” those who are suffering. We need to have some compassion. Maybe then we will realize that poor people aren’t big, stupid animals after all.

This political season, many are worried about our financial debt and deficit. I am also worried about what I perceive to be an empathy deficit.

Turns out the Red States are Food Stamp Nation

But when I talk with conservatives, it always seems to go around in circles. They discuss what they believe is solid policy and I can only think of how it impacts people. They even have a condescending name for helping the poor. Entitlements. Oh, you think you’re so entitled to eat and stuff. Policy-wise, it’s easy to say, “Look at food stamps! Our budget deficit can’t afford them. Have you seen how the numbers of people on them has gone up? And I heard someone say that people just buy beer and cigarettes with them. Well, I say it’s time to end the gravy train! No more free lunches on the tax payer dime!!”

In its own way, it has a certain kind of logic to it. But it has no empathy for the people who desperately need this program. It doesn’t deal with the fact that…

  • 1 out of ever 7 Americans is on food stamps. (A group of people equaling the population of Spain.)
  • 65 percent of the growth has been because of people got poorer. Another 20 percent was the stimulus.
  • There have been no — I repeat no — significant legislative changes to who is eligible for food stamps since Obama took office.
  • Around 85 percent of recipients are below the poverty line, which amounts to a measly $18,500 a year for a family of three.
  • The vast majority of recipients are elderly, disabled, or have children. In fact, 50 percent of food stamp recipients ARE children.
  • Among single, young, and healthy recipients, the average income is $268 a month.
  • We’re not even feeding everyone who is eligible. As of 2009, only 72 percent of those eligible were enrolled.

In the end, the food stamp program (SNAP) is one of the most successful and efficient government programs because the aid goes directly to families living hand to mouth, where it is then recycled back into the economy. Moody’s Analytics has suggested that every dollar spent on food stamps generates $1.72 in economic activity. But real empathy only comes when you actually know someone who is, or has been, on food stamps.

Just as CEOs try not to get to know employees who they might have to lay off, I’m sure it is much easier for politicians to wrestle with tough policy decisions when you never have to meet the people who are affected. This is why I went into church work and not politics. Thinking in terms of people and not policy probably makes me a lousy politician. I can’t get past the fact that I want people to have healthcare; I want poor families to be able to put healthy food on the table; I want hard working immigrants who come here for a better life to have a pathway to citizenship — especially the children and those who serve in our military; I want LGBT people to have civil and legal rights. I want all these things because I know a lot of these people. I think about them, not about the political costs of making the policy. Economically, I think it’s been proven that we can always find money to do the things we need want to do. (i.e. start wars, develop expensive weapons for war, start a second war, etc.)

Last week, House Republicans attached a motion to a Farm Bill that aims to drastically restrict food stamps and school lunch programs for any family that also owns a car. Once again, I found myself amazed at the lack of imagination in a bill like this. Now they want to force poor families into choosing between feeding their kids and having a mode of transportation to get to work. Lazy thinking wonders, Well, if they have enough money to buy a car, they don’t need food stamps. Their little brains just can’t fathom how people who already have a car might be laid off or have a sick and uninsured family member, lose their home, fall into poverty, and eventually be living out of said car. Sorry, no food stamps or school lunches for you! You are obviously rich and trying to take advantage of the system.

You see why I needed a few days to simmer in this? I’m telling you, on Monday, I would have been flame throwing and name calling. Today, I am much more civil. But I’m still amazed at how such smart and educated people can have such little empathy for poor and hurting people. To them, the poor are a cheap joke line that can be told to rich people to get them to give more money. “Aren’t poor people stupid and greedy? Nobody ever gave me a handout! Now, if you’d just give me a million dollar check, which is in no way a handout…

If they only knew some poor people, I would hope they would be whistling a different tune, but I am no longer sure about that.

Happy Thursday everyone. And whatever you do. Please don’t feed the poor people. It only encourages them.

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About carpetbagger

Tom and Jean are just a couple of Chicago transplants in Lawrenceville, a neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

Posted on July 12, 2012, in Faith, Misc, Politics and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I can see why you’d want to spit fire. That’s just insane. Heaven forbid someone tries to see what life is like on the other side.

    My only issue with welfare is that they don’t do drug testing. I have not one problem having my money go to help others eat. I DO have a problem helping people with their drug problem. When I used to live in Oakland, I’d get asked every day to swap cash for food stamps in front of the Giant Eagle on Center. That made me so sad, yet irritated. It’s a tough place.

    I can see why some people are jaded, but the majority of those on food stamps truly need it and use it for food. If you see someone abusing the system, I see why it’d make you angry. BUT, the majority are NOT like that.

    And I’m sure the woman who posted that has never known what it’s like to live from pay check to pay check.

  2. Thank you for this beautifully written, intelligent post. I have seen that Facebook post more times than I can count because of the general attitude here in the south. Instead of 4 or 5 likes though, it’s more like 20 or 30. The culture here is very different, both politically and socially. After the healthcare bill was upheld, I had to get off of social media for a few days. Like you, I felt like I would unleash the flames and I just had to step back. Is the system flawed? I’m sure it is. But it serves a greater purpose.

    I worked for a grocery store for a long time. Food stamps come on debit-style cards now and can only be used to purchase certain items. Alcohol and cigarettes are excluded, cooked and baked food is excluded, paper products are excluded. The machines automatically separate those things out when you select the food stamp pay option. Sure, some people were crappy about them and rolled their eyes when they had to pay out of pocket for items, but the vast majority of people tried to be discreet and were embarrassed they had to use them while they tried to keep their kids in line.

    • Thanks, Jessica.

      There’s always going to be a small percentage of people trying to game any system. Just ask the IRS. But you’re right, they’ve really improved the system. And it’s primarily used by people who are just trying to feed their families, so they can use the rest of their money for rent, utilities, and healthcare.

  3. Can I just like this 1000+ times?

    Whenever I do one of my “Thinking About” posts, I have to let it sit for awhile. Because it’s hard to write when you are sputtering mad.

  4. It’s half-thought blurbs like this one you referenced, that really burn me. It’s the kind of easy to swallow pseudo-lesson that happens to be rife with fallacies and faulty logic… you know, the stuff you find all over talk radio and Fox “News.”

    Yeah, look at the overall numbers. The cost of food stamps are statistically negligible compared to the military budget, corporate subsidies and tax cuts for the rich. But there aren’t any conservatives looking to cut those, that’s for sure.

  1. Pingback: Should the Joe Paterno statue come down? « Carpetbaggery

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