The Bridge

Are We Losing Empathy?

The recession is sowing seeds of income segregation.

October 1, 2012
Growing up in a small city in Maine, I had a childhood friend whose family lived in one of those three-decker apartment buildings that sprang up in New England to house immigrants and factory workers a century or more ago.

One day, I was invited into my friend’s apartment by his mother after an afternoon of hard play in the hot sun.

His father was disabled and no longer worked. He was sitting in a wheelchair at the kitchen table.

This was before Medicare or Medicaid existed, and I have no idea how the family paid for his medicine and treatment, or if he was getting either.

When his mother opened their refrigerator, I was struck by what I saw: a bottle of catsup and a jar of pickles. There was nothing else. No milk or juice. No fresh fruit or vegetables. No lunch meat or leftovers. No salad dressing or soda.

I was too young to think, “Wow, they’re poor.” But I did think, “Wow, my refrigerator has a lot more stuff in it.”

That was the difference between being the son of a disabled shoe factory worker and being the son of a shoe factory executive. My family never went without a meal or medical care.

That image of the almost-empty refrigerator stayed with me. It popped up as I read recently how poverty is on the rise again in America, and has reached a level not seen since the 1960s before Lyndon Johnson launched his War on Poverty.

Recently, The New York Times featured an article by Georgetown law professor Peter Edelman about the mixed success of anti­poverty programs spurred by the War on Poverty.

Poverty had decreased statistically down to 11% of the population by 1973, he notes. It increased again during the recession of the early ’80s—peaking at more than 15% in 1983, according to the U.S. Census Bureau—but dropped again to 11% in the early 2000s.

Today, the poverty rate is back up to 15%—that’s 46 million people. Clearly, the ups and downs of our economy have a significant impact on this.

But Edelman takes to task those who would gut the remaining antipoverty programs even further than they already have been gutted because, as they say, “We fought the War on Poverty and poverty won.”

That, says Edelman, is akin to saying the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts were failures because there’s still pollution.

Edelman cites four factors affecting poverty rates:

1. The vast number of people who now work at low-wage jobs;

2. The number of households headed by a single parent, usually a woman, and the difficulty of supporting a household by working a low-wage job without additional household income;

3. The near disappearance of cash assistance for low-income mothers and children following welfare reform in the mid-1990s; and

4. The persistent issues of race and gender that result in women and people of color usually being hit harder during a recession and recovery than anyone else.

Many people will shake their heads at these viewpoints. As a nation, we’re plagued by entrenched and uncompromising cultural attitudes and differences that make honest public debate almost impossible.

Poverty is persistent. It always will be with us to some degree. We all know there are people who make bad life decisions, and that can annoy us. But poverty, like all economic issues, is complex, and anecdotes don’t make good public policy for complex issues.

Empathy for our fellow man seems to be disappearing. A new report by Pew Research shows increased segregation in America by income. We don’t know our neighbors like we once did.

We will always have mansions on the hill and three-decker apartments below. But it was once more likely that the son of a factory executive with a full refrigerator had more contact with the son of a disabled worker whose refrigerator held only a bottle of catsup and a jar of pickles.

MARK CONDON is CUNA’s senior vice president, business and consumer publishing. Contact him at 608-231-4078.