Being confronted with the suffering of others triggers discomfort in almost any healthy person. That compassionate urge is particularly nagging when the misery has complex causes and cannot be easily relieved. Our discomfort grows when we have some power to alleviate the suffering we see, but doing so would cost us something we want.
Everyone must confront this dilemma in one way or another. There is more suffering in the world than any of us can address no matter how much angst or commitment we bring to the challenge. Whether it’s generated by the homeless guy at the train station or Sarah McLachlan’s dog commercial, everyone must make some peace with the sadness we see around us. We contribute where we can and sleep soundly.
Some methods of coping with that angst are more constructive than others. One of the oldest, most powerful and most deeply obnoxious ways to escape is to simply blame the victim. Not only does it eliminate our nagging discomfort, it imparts a refreshing spritz of righteous superiority. More than that, it numbs us to one of the healthiest, yet most deeply disconcerting by-products of other people’s suffering – the mortal reminder that “there but for the grace of God…” Blaming the poor stunts the development of humility.
As a form of suffering, poverty is a profound test of compassion because it can seldom be completely separated from personal choices. Poverty is the greatest temptation to calloused disregard. There are opportunities open to most people that would allow them to defeat poverty. And it is true that bad personal choices, sometimes morally compromised choices, are often the gateway to poverty.
When thinking about wealth, poverty, and virtue it is helpful to keep in mind that bad personal choices, sometimes morally compromised choices, can also be the gateway to enormous personal wealth. Some of the people whose fraud engineered the Enron debacle and the mortgage collapse are quite rich and happy. One of Enron’s architects is in prison. Another is living on a mountain he bought in Hawaii.
If we assume that the poor have some character flaw at the root of their condition, there is no reason not to assume the same of the wealthy. We all have a character flaw at the root of our condition. We are human.
We use the organizing power of government to raise the floor of poverty not just from compassion. Extreme poverty is like a virus that reproduces and spreads. No one builds a garden while their house is on fire. The conditions created by severe want preclude the kind of personal investment necessary to change one’s fundamental condition. That’s why we eliminated child labor and sweatshops. That’s why we mandate education for children. That’s why we criminalize prostitution.
When a family is struggling to meet basic needs for food, shelter and clothing, teenage kids drop out of school to pitch in. Mothers and fathers work longer hours to feed the family, leaving them little or no time to be parents. Older siblings take on parenting roles they are ill-equipped to perform. Families, in essence, eat their seed-corn, ever eroding their capacity to make investments in education, health, and mental stability that yield massive returns over time.
In rare situations, a few remarkably talented people emerge from grinding poverty to become successful. Sometimes someone survives a plane crash. That doesn’t mean plane crashes shouldn’t be avoided or that the victims are to blame for their fate.
What makes a guy like Ben Carson, for example, such a tragic figure is the way he turned his own remarkable success into a condemnation of those left behind; those crushed by the same conditions of poverty and racism he endured. Survivors’ guilt can be a terrible torment. The deep conviction that you made it because you were more righteous than the worthless losers left behind in the ruins of Detroit must be a wonderful balm, though the odor is terrible.
Just as only Nixon could go to China, only Republicans are suited to address the structural issues that continue to feed unnecessary poverty in our country. Making poverty relief successful means keeping an eye on wider goals. Our ambition is not to build a bigger, more intrusive government. Our goal is to prevent temporary, unavoidable misfortunes from destroying a family’s capacity to invest in themselves and participate in the economy. It was Republicans under Nixon who first proposed a basic income, which would eliminate poverty while gutting the poverty-bureaucracy. Republicans remain best position to promote such an opportunity agenda.
Republicans often complain about a “nanny state,” then with the same breath urge government to tell us how to live. Poverty rises from many things, but most of all from a lack of money. Until we are willing to spend some money – our money – to address poverty, we should just shut up about it. When Republicans are ready to stop congratulating themselves for being white and affluent and start questioning their obnoxious and frequently racist myths about opportunity, an opening will emerge for the kind of positive structural changes that come along once every century or so.
Unfortunately, Republicans are showing no interest in addressing questions of economic opportunity. Poverty is complicated and there are few things Republicans hate more deeply right now than nuance. Paul Ryan can thrash and flail all he wants, but as long as he continues to coddle Republicans who insist on tying righteousness to wealth he will fail.
Meanwhile, with every poor kid who drops out of high school to take more hours at the restaurant, the country surrenders another opportunity to become freer, wealthier, and better able to compete. Blaming the poor feels great, but it comes with a cost.