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Charities and the ‘Compassion Gap’

July 09, 2014

Rosenman_headshotAny traces of the "compassionate conservatism" championed by George W. Bush in the early days of his administration has long since evaporated under the heat of Republican extremism. Today, more than three-quarters of American conservatives think the poor "have it easy," while fewer than 10 percent believe the "poor have hard lives" and receive inadequate assistance.

What's more, many conservatives believe the poor have easy lives because "they get government benefits without doing anything," ignoring not only the limits of public aid, but also the obstacles that must be overcome to obtain food stamps, Medicaid, day care, public housing, and other kinds of government assistance. In fact, more than 80 percent of conservatives also say that the government programs on which the poor so desperately depend do more harm than good.

Can four out of five conservatives really be so hard-hearted that they cannot imagine how profoundly difficult life is for people without enough money to feed their children, to fill an essential prescription for an ill parent, or to access a safe place to leave an infant while they try to find a part-time, no-benefits, minimum-wage job that gives them no hope of escaping what in many cases are slum- and crime-ridden neighborhoods? "Have it easy?" Really?

These findings are consistent in that more than half of conservatives believe that people are poor because of "lack of effort," while fewer than 30 percent of conservatives believe poverty results from "circumstances beyond [an individual's] control." Despite all we have learned over the years about the causes of poverty and related ills, conservatives seem bound and determined to reduce the issue to the simple fact of people making bad decisions and doing bad things.

That kind of thinking ought to be greeted with dismay by most charities, even if their missions address problems other than poverty. Blaming the victim does not make the work of nonprofits any easier, does not incline people to support well-meaning interventions, and, at the end of the day, is the opposite of charitable. Indeed, with respect to most problems of concern to nonprofits, there is no path forward if people are seen as the sole source of their own troubles.

So let me remind conservatives of a few important facts: There are more than 50 million people in the United States today living at or below the poverty line – a higher rate of poverty than at any time since the 1960s. Moreover, nearly one in four American children live in poverty – the second-highest rate among the thirty-five most economically developed nations. And the figure jumps to more than one of every two children if we include children living in "low-income" families.

Is poverty the fault of these children? Folks on the right don't seem to care, with close to 90 percent of conservatives asserting that "everyone has it in their own power to succeed." Never mind that research has shown that people who grew up in poverty are much more likely to be poor as adults, and to have children who grow up to be poor.

And while a majority of Americans know that race still matters, more than 80 percent of conservatives say "blacks who can't get ahead are responsible for their own condition." Again, really?

After all, neurological and other types of studies show that the very condition of living in poverty reproduces it. But conservatives tend to ignore science when it contradicts their ideology. For instance, 46 percent of Republicans believe that global warming is "not happening," while more than 70 percent say we have "gone too far to protect the environment," even as 99.9 percent of climate scientists say that man-made global warming is a real and growing threat.

Such ideologically driven obstinacy ought to worry the entire nonprofit and philanthropic sector. Those of us who want to build a better world need the public and policy makers to see what's what and to act with compassion even when they don't.

Sadly, there's too little of either among conservatives today.

And that's a problem, because it is contributing to growing political polarization. According to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, "Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines – and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive – than at any point in the last two decades." Meanwhile, Republicans are significantly more likely than Democrats to see those with opposing views as a "threat to the nation's well-being."

You don't need me to tell you that our well-being is suffering. According to the Social Progress Imperative, a relatively new initiative that measures multiple dimensions of social progress and human well-being in over one hundred countries, the U.S. doesn’t rank in the top ten in terms of overall social progress (we're sixteenth), comes in a disappointing twenty-third in the category of Basic Human Needs (nutrition, basic health care, shelter, etc.) and ranks a dismal thirty-sixth in the category of Foundations of Well-Being (school enrollment, phone/internet access, life expectancy, ecosystem health, etc.).

In other words, there is lots of room for improvement. And improvement is going to require the efforts of both government and the nonprofit sector. While roughly 80 percent of those who hold strongly conservative views believe regulations do more harm than good, it should be clear to a majority of Americans that the "mediating institutions — voluntary associations, local government, church [sic], and, above all, the family" so valued by conservatives do not alone have the power to solve the daunting problems we face as a nation and a people.

The good news is that even though the percentage of non-ideologically-driven Americans has shrunk by about a fifth over the last two decades, there remains a large center comprising roughly 40 percent of all Americans who may be willing and happy to work with charities to achieve social progress. It is to those people that nonprofits must speak.

Charities need to go beyond service provision and enlist large numbers of Americans free of rigid ideological views to support programs and policies that can remedy the problems that bedevil so many of us. We know that those at either end of the ideological spectrum are more likely to vote and to be involved in the political process. The only way to mitigate political polarization is to activate – both charitably and in the democratic process – those in the broad middle. Unless – and until – charities and foundations turn to that task, the causes, communities, and people we serve will continue to suffer.

Mark Rosenman is emeritus professor at Union Institute & University and a frequent contributor to PhilanTopic. In his previous post, he wrote about nonprofits and oligarchy.

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