The Empathy Gap

This article is cross-posted in the Huffington Post.

“People don’t have the right to be in poverty in America,” an acquaintance told me. He continued, “If people aren’t accessing the wealth of resources that America has, that’s their fault. Why are you working with poor people?”

I’ll never forget those words from a well-meaning man from a middle-class immigrant family. Working with families from low-income communities across the country, I have seen people from all walks of life who share the same line of thinking:

· “Can’t poor people just get better paying jobs?”

· “Aren’t they all just taking advantage of the welfare system?”

· “Why don’t they just use the hundreds of social service programs that are available to them?”

I know my relatives, neighbors, and colleagues mean well and don’t live in the social sector bubble that I do. When survival isn’t the biggest concern in your life, it is easy to judge a person who doesn’t take advantage of all that is perceived to be out there.

The Misperception of the Rags-to-Riches Story

America’s guiding narrative is that if you try hard enough, you can rise above the barriers that are presented to you, even barriers like poverty. The rags-to-riches story is a truly American ideal.

We revere Horatio Alger-style rags-to-riches stories because we want to believe they’re true. If we work hard enough, perhaps we will be rewarded as well? Who wouldn’t want to believe that?

The narrative so engrained in the American psyche that we now also believe a parallel and more dangerous narrative: you must not be working hard enough if you are poor.

But that’s too easy. It’s too easy to say that social mobility, the ability to take the path out of poverty, is solely and directly tied to the individual.

The invisible stepping-stones used by the middle class are taken for granted. These stepping-stones are critical advantages — a quality education, transportation, moderately safe neighborhood, and connections to people in a larger community. Think about the first time someone connected you to a valuable resource when you were a child. She may have been a teacher who encouraged you to join the band. He might have been your uncle who drove you to your SAT test. It may have been a conversation with a neighbor that led you to apply for an internship. These small, yet critical advantages accumulate throughout the lives of middle class people and add up to better opportunities.

Our Social Safety Net is an Uncoordinated Mess

I want you to imagine that you need to buy a car because yours broke down on the side of the road. At the same time, you’ve gotten into a fight with your partner, your debit card was stolen, and your boss handed you a tall stack of work. Well, the car has to be top of mind in addition to all of these other issues. For many, while necessary, buying the car just doesn’t feel like an option this week. Too stressful.

Now I want you to imagine instead of buying a car, you are faced with problems like hunger, two part-time jobs that do not cover rent, and violence on the street. Survival is at the top of mind. And while there are literally hundreds of thousands of nonprofit services that support low-income families, this social safety net is confusing and difficult to navigate. The counselors, social workers and teachers who are there to help are inundated with an impossible caseload. The only access to those places is often through word of mouth.

In the San Francisco Bay Area alone, there are over 1,300 nonprofits, as listed in our web database at One Degree. Yet every day mothers spend countless hours researching, traveling to, and going through a painstaking in-take process. They work with up to a dozen different nonprofit organizations — food pantries, health clinics, afterschool programs, shelters — to ensure their families survive through the month. This nonprofit shuffle is like having a part-time job just to access critical, life-saving services.

The truth is that the average low-income family is working hard. Incredibly hard.

It’s too easy to blame it on lack of effort. It is too easy to point to the examples of self-medication in these communities. Are we so willing to give up on and demonize each other? Doing so is an easy way for us in the middle class to assuage ourselves from guilt, but in order to fight poverty, we have to do more.

Remain Curious

I have a simple ask for you for the new year. It is the same ask I gave my friend who said, “People don’t have the right to be in poverty in America.” Stop and reflect on the invisible stepping-stones that led you to success today. How many different people contributed to your current stability? This is not a game of who’s been more wronged by society. It is humans living in a very imperfectly structured world learning how to see each other as humans.

Don’t settle for the easy answer, and ask the difficult questions, like:

· What can we do as a society to lift everyone into the middle class?

· What is that “other” person going through?

· Why do I value their struggle so much less than my own?

Remain curious and have empathy. When we create artificial social boundaries, all we do is dehumanize people who live in low-income communities. Instead ask, “What part do I want to play?” and find a way to make a difference.

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