A reader named Keith reflected a coruscating chorus when he protested:
“If kids are going hungry, it is because of the parents not upholding
A reader in Washington bluntly suggested taking children from parents and putting them in orphanages.
Jim asked: “Why should I have to subsidize someone else’s child? How
about personal responsibility? If you procreate, you provide.”
After a recent column about an uninsured man who delayed seeing a doctor
about a condition that turned out to be colon cancer, many readers
noted that he is a lifelong smoker and said he had it coming.
“What kind of a lame brain doofus is this guy?” one reader asked. “And
like it’s our fault that he couldn’t afford to have himself checked
Such scorn seems widespread, based on the comments I get on my blog
and Facebook page — as well as on polling and on government policy. At
root, these attitudes reflect a profound lack of empathy.
A Princeton University psychology professor, Susan Fiske
has found that when research subjects hooked up to neuro-imaging
machines look at photos of the poor and homeless, their brains often
react as if they are seeing things, not people. Her analysis suggests
that Americans sometimes react to poverty not with sympathy but with
So, on Thanksgiving, maybe we need a conversation about empathy for fellow humans in distress.
Let’s acknowledge one point made by these modern social Darwinists: It’s
true that some people in poverty do suffer in part because of
irresponsible behavior, from abuse of narcotics to criminality to
laziness at school or jobs. But remember also that many of today’s poor
are small children who have done nothing wrong.
Some 45 percent of food stamp recipients are children, for example. Do
we really think that kids should go hungry if they have criminal
parents? Should a little boy not get a curved spine treated properly
because his dad is a deadbeat? Should a girl not be able to go to
preschool because her mom is an alcoholic?
Successful people tend to see in themselves a simple narrative: You
study hard, work long hours, obey the law and create your own good
fortune. Well, yes. That often works fine in middle-class families.
But if you’re conceived by a teenage mom who drinks during pregnancy so
that you’re born with fetal alcohol effects, the odds are overwhelmingly
stacked against you from before birth. You’ll perhaps never get
Likewise, if you’re born in a high-poverty neighborhood to a
stressed-out single mom who doesn’t read to you and slaps you more than
hugs you, you’ll face a huge handicap. One University of Minnesota study
found that the kind of parenting a child receives in the first 3.5
years is a better predictor of high school graduation than I.Q.
All this helps explain why one of the strongest determinants of ending
up poor is being born poor. As Warren Buffett puts it, our life outcomes
often depend on the “ovarian lottery.”
Sure, some people transcend their circumstances, but it’s callous for
those born on second or third base to denounce the poor for failing to
hit home runs.
John Rawls, the brilliant 20th-century philosopher, argued for a society
that seems fair if we consider it from behind a “veil of ignorance” —
meaning we don’t know whether we’ll be born to an investment banker or a
teenage mom, in a leafy suburb or a gang-ridden inner city, healthy or
disabled, smart or struggling, privileged or disadvantaged. That’s a
shrewd analytical tool — and who among us would argue for food stamp
cuts if we thought we might be among the hungry children?
As we celebrate Thanksgiving, let’s remember that the difference between
being surrounded by a loving family or being homeless on the street is
determined not just by our own level of virtue or self-discipline, but
also by an inextricable mix of luck, biography, brain chemistry and
For those who are well-off, it may be easier to castigate the
irresponsibility of the poor than to recognize that success in life is a
reflection not only of enterprise and willpower, but also of random
chance and early upbringing.
Low-income Americans, who actually encounter the needy in daily life, understand this complexity and respond with empathy. Researchers say that’s why
the poorest 20 percent of Americans donate more to charity, as a
fraction of their incomes, than the richest 20 percent. Meet those who
need help, especially children, and you become less judgmental and more
And compassion isn’t a sign of weakness, but a mark of civilization.