Why do so many Americans not believe that poor people here at home are in need of our help and empathy?

The recent government shutdown got me thinking about poverty, empathy, and our national moral compass. While the news fixated on the storming of the closed World War II Memorial and on the National Zoo’s switched off ‘panda cam’, poor families around the country were taking a major hit. In many states, Head Start programs shut down, temporary assistance checks stopped coming, and WIC programs froze the acceptance of new applications. Why was there more talk of national outrage around the shuttering of national parks than around the rolled back programs that are supposed to help our country’s most vulnerable families and children? Where did the empathy go?

There is a story that I told as part of my graduate school application essays about my first encounter with extreme poverty. I was eight or nine years old and my family had recently moved to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia because my dad was working for a UN agency there. It was during a time of civil war and severe famine. Bored before the start of the new school term, my sister and I climbed a tree in the compound to see what lay on the other side of the wall. Before us swept a seemingly endless shanty town. A group of children our age were playing soccer, weaving between the tin and cardboard huts that were their homes. Throwing a rope over the wall and clamoring down it, we joined the game. This first experience in a shanty town and subsequent ones during my time in Ethiopia, taught me more about what it is to live without than any book could have. When I tell this story, people’s perceptions of the residents of the shanty town seem to be (rightly) that their poverty was a result of circumstances beyond their control.

When I moved to New York, I lived for a time across the street from a large low-income housing project in Brooklyn. There too, I got to know some of my neighbors and came to understand poverty in America through those relationships. When I tell that story, perceptions of the residents and the reasons for their poverty are much more mixed.

While these stories are anecdotal, Pew research found that 46% of Americans believe that circumstances beyond one’s control are more often to blame if a person is poor in this country, while 38% say that an individual’s lack of effort is more often to blame; 11% blame both. And, just 43% agree that the government should help more needy people, even if it means going deeper in debt. So, while many Americans believe that poverty is a systemic problem rather than solely the result of individual failings, there is no consensus on what, if anything, we should do about it. And, this debate is evidenced by the current state of our national politics. Meanwhile, a full 60% of Americans believe that contributing 0.7% of national income to foreign aid towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals is the right thing to do.

But, why such different views of the American poor and the poor in developing countries? Why do so many Americans not believe that poor people here at home are in need of our help and empathy?

Perhaps it is in part because the idea of persistent poverty in America is in conflict with our national meta-narrative. America is supposed to be the land of opportunity and prosperity. In order to make sense of the contradiction, our culture defaults to pretending that domestic poverty does not exist, or that if it does exist, the poor themselves are to blame. And, perhaps it is partially due to a lack of understanding about what it is to be poor in a wealthy country. “Is it really poverty when people have air conditioning?” I have heard some ask, applying a very simplistic lens to a very complex issue. It could also be related to the fact that talking about domestic poverty forces us to examine and acknowledge the relationships between race, income, and access to opportunity. For example, the historical and prevailing context is that the majority of low-income people in cities are people of color, but many organizations and individuals who work on issues of urban poverty tip-toe around that reality because addressing it head-on can lead to uncomfortable conversations internally and with partners and funders. But, if the social sector shies away from honest, open dialogue, how will the narrative ever change? My hypothesis is that all of these issues are relevant.

So, what do we do about it? What will it take to bring empathy back? Based on my hypothesis, I believe that those of us whose life’s work is moving the needle on issues of poverty and access to opportunity must hold ourselves accountable for understanding the issues in all of their complexity: What does it mean to be poor in America today? And, we must also hold ourselves accountable for telling that story in a way that resonates. This includes taking a collective stand when poor families are taking a hit. It’s the right thing to do.