Mind the empathy gap

Photo courtesy of Benjamin Kabak

 

Take the following scene. You’re in line at the supermarket, behind someone with a full shopping cart. The cart is full of what, to you, seems like some pretty unhealthy food choices. Boxed frozen foods, a huge bag of chicken nuggets, another bag of pizza-flavored egg rolls, and nary a vegetable in sight. You also notice a few 24 packs of soda. And some candy bars.

And then, after the whole thing is bagged up, you see this person pull out a SNAP (food stamp) card, and pay for it. And then you realize that government assistance paid for all of that. Which means, indirectly, that you did, at least in part.

What is your gut reaction to this?

Outrage…?

Is it outrage? “Why are my tax dollars going to support this? Government assistance is terrible!

Does it get more personal? “I don’t want my money supporting people like that! These people don’t make good decisions and don’t deserve my help!

Or, put another way, this comes down to a question of worldview. Do you believe people are primarily good-intentioned or cheaters?

… or compassion?

If someone is receiving SNAP benefits, they are most likely to (source):

  • … be in a household with a child, an elderly person, or a disabled person.
  • … have gross income at or below 75% of the poverty guideline ($14,648 for a family of 3 in 2013)
  • … have a gross monthly income of $744 (net monthly income of $338)

When you have limited resources, you make the best choices you can, but they may not be objectively considered good choices. And that might involve buying more nutrient dense but less healthy choices (burgers instead of broccoli). And that might also might involve not making the best choices at all (soda versus juice or water). Add to the pressure if you happen to have other people to feed.

Making ends meet

I’ve never been hungry, and have never been truly poor, but I have experienced barely making ends meet. I can tell you that healthy food choices were really not on my mind. At all. I used the be the person buying the big bag of processed chicken nugget-like food, I will admit.

And yet, interestingly, as my situation improved and my income grew, I developed a greater interest in healthier eating and living, and started acting on those interests. I don’t see this as a coincidence.

Misplaced blame

Do you blame people for being poor? Do you believe that everyone can be well-off, and if not, then it’s their fault? If so, why exactly?

Do you use your own life as an example? Are you just using the one example from your own life and are extrapolating it to everyone else? If so, you are buying into some dangerous fallacies. Such as:

  • You did it all yourself: Not true. You are a part of the system, and you worked within it to achieve what you have achieved. You had help, and it’s insensitive and misguided to think that you didn’t.
  • Everyone starts from the same place: Not true. You are a product of the family you grew up in, the geographical area you started from, and your socioeconomic, gender, and race status. Everyone starts from a different spot.
  • Everyone has the same trials and pitfalls: Not true. Some people have health issues that plague not only their ability to function properly, but also their wallet (since we as a society have shown that we’re not all that great at helping one another with healthcare issues). Some people have chemical imbalances that give them demons to deal with that you and I can’t imagine.

Now, going back to the original example, do I like that our assistance program allows people to make unhealthy choices? Not really, though I think that if we gave people more assistance, they would feel more free to purchase better quality foods and not feel so pressured. It’s not a stretch to see that people with higher incomes eat more healthily.

Giving people more assistance would allow them to make more healthy choices, and therefore be more likely to pull themselves out of the poverty that cause them to require assistance in the first place.

And even if you disagree with this, it’s hard to follow the logic of giving people less assistance. How exactly will that help people to pull themselves out of a bad situation?

Mind the gap

I bring up to point out that it is vitally important for us to remain in touch with our empathy, especially now that the holiday season is rolling around again. If your worldview has you assuming the worst about people, you may never be disappointed, but you’re also more likely to be wrong. And it doesn’t seem like a great way to live, either.

Yes, there are some people who game the system. But I would go farther and say that you and I game the system too, just in our own ways. And while I’m not absolving anyone, it prevents me from judging others. You don’t know what people are dealing with or going through. They are not you. So don’t judge them as if you know what they are doing. Mind the empathy gap.

But enough about me. What is your gut reaction to assistance and those who make use of it? How can we improve things for everyone?

Mike Pumphrey

Mike Pumphrey

I'm the founder and author of Unlikely Radical, a site to help people succeed with money, achieve their goals, and live intentionally.

I offer a free phone consultation to anyone who is interested in changing their financial narrative. Are you ready? Click here for details.
Mike Pumphrey

Latest posts by Mike Pumphrey (see all)

Posted on November 25, 2013