February 23, 2020
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The compassion divide and why it should worry all of us — not just the poor

Contributed photo | BDN
Contributed photo | BDN
Sandy Butler is a professor at the School of Social Work at the University of Maine.

Are wealthier people less compassionate? That’s what the research of Jennifer Stellar and her colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley shows.

In a series of studies the researchers published in 2012, lower-class individuals consistently demonstrated that they were more attuned to the needs of others than were those of greater means. The implications of these findings are sobering considering that most of our policymakers — at least in Washington, if less so in Augusta — have considerable means. Can we expect these decision makers to have empathy for those whose lives are so unlike their own?

This is just what low-income Mainers are asking of those holding office and making decisions about social welfare and other policies impacting their lives.

Earlier this month, Maine Equal Justice Partners and the Every Child Matters Education Fund published “ Maine People Agree: Opportunity Is the Bridge to a Better Future.” The report is based on a statewide poll of likely voters and a large-scale survey of low-income Mainers carried out this past summer. In general, the polling found that Mainers — both low-income and not — largely agree on the causes of poverty and ways to reduce it.

These findings seem to suggest that Maine does not exhibit the “compassion divide” among social classes that Stellar found. While this would bode well for confronting Maine’s persistent poverty, these findings are in sharp contrast to the apparent lack of empathy shown by Gov. Paul LePage and some legislators in making cuts to programs and supports that provide opportunity to low-income Mainers.

Indeed, individuals who participated in the Maine People Agree surveys described the harsh realities of living in poverty, and they pleaded for more compassion from policymakers and the public.

For example, a 56-year-old woman, working despite having disabilities, wrote, “The Legislature and governor have no real understanding of why poverty occurs, and I don’t believe they want to learn. When you view a section of society with negativity and disdain, scapegoating them for all the country’s financial problems, the need to do the work to make changes is not going to be there. Maybe the first step is to stop shaming the poor.”

A 23-year-old working, single mother wrote, “I wish more money were going toward actually helping people and families in need instead of trying to villainize and blame the poor — feeding starving people instead of putting pictures on EBT cards.”

Finally, a 69-year-old woman receiving Social Security wrote that our elected officials show “a lack of understanding and perhaps compassion. As the Dalai Lama urges, it is so important to be warm-hearted, perhaps more so than any other consideration.”

The good news revealed in the Maine People Agree report is that the majority of Maine residents, regardless of income, agree with these low-income survey respondents that we need to show more compassion, and that we need to move away from solutions to poverty based on shame and blame and, instead, provide opportunities for real success. Three of five likely Maine voters polled this summer said they thought people lived in poverty because of a lack of jobs with livable wages and inadequate access to the supports they need to secure and keep those jobs, including education, health care and child care. A distinct minority — only 32 percent — attributed poverty to poor decisions and irresponsible behavior. Such views run counter to the recent political rhetoric focused on harsh stereotypes of those who need assistance.

Moreover, members of the general public have some pretty good ideas for addressing poverty — ideas that not only show compassion for their less fortunate neighbors, but would boost our economy and strengthen our communities as well.

Overwhelming majorities agreed that the minimum wage should be increased, that child care should be more affordable and that all children should have access to Head Start or pre-kindergarten. Furthermore, the respondents viewed access to affordable higher education and affordable housing as key to reducing poverty.

Even as the Great Recession is officially over, too many individuals and families in Maine cannot meet their basic needs. More than one third of Maine’s entire population falls below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. It’s heartening to know, though, that a substantial majority of Maine residents do not blame the poor for their circumstances and have good ideas about how we can help all Mainers to rise out of poverty. Hopefully, in the new year, newly elected policymakers in Augusta will reflect the compassion most Mainers feel and work to implement these common sense solutions to poverty.

Sandy Butler is professor of social work and is the graduate program coordinator in the School of Social Work at the University of Maine. She is a member of the Maine chapter of the national Scholars Strategy Network, which brings together scholars across the country to address public challenges and their policy implications. Members’ columns appear in the BDN every other week.


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