Peter Neiger shared a great little piece by Nicholas Kristof in the NYT yesterday, The Compassion Gap.
It’s not long and I highly recommend reading the whole thing. Kristof points out a lot of uncomfortable truths, especially uncomfortable for free-marketers.
The post is a defense of his previously offered suggestion for more “early-childhood interventions to broaden opportunity in America.”
Let’s push for home visitation programs that encourage parents to speak to children and read to them; many low-income homes don’t have a single kid’s book. We also need initiatives to reduce exposure to lead and other toxins. Finally, how about screenings for problems like hearing and visual impairment — all followed by a good prekindergarten.
It’s tough to know what Kristof means when he says “push,” but a lot of free-marketers hear, “legislate.” They’ll rightly point out that most government-funded early-intervention programs just don’t work. Worse, funding them requires taking money out of the more-effective private sector, where it could be used to innovate or for private charity.
But how do they react to such a suggestion?
I focused on a 3-year-old boy in West Virginia named Johnny Weethee whose hearing impairment had gone undetected, leading him to suffer speech and development problems that may dog him for the rest of his life.
A photo of Johnny and his mom, Truffles Weethee, accompanied the column and readers honed in on Truffles’ tattoos and weight.
“You show a photograph of a fat woman with tons of tattoos all over that she paid for,” one caller said. “And then we — boohoo — have to worry about the fact that her children aren’t cared for properly?”
On Twitter, Amy was more polite: “My heart breaks for Johnny. I have to wonder if the $$ mom spent on tattoos could have been put to better use.”
“This is typical of the left,” Pancho scolded on my Facebook page. “It’s not anyone’s fault. Responsibility is somebody else’s problem.”
To me, such outrage at a doting mom based on her appearance suggests the myopic tendency in our country to blame poverty on the poor, to confuse economic difficulties with moral failures, to muddle financial lapses with ethical ones.
Pretty fucking much.
The free market is supposed to reward those who perform well and punish those who don’t. And it does. But several things complicate this clear-and-sunny view of American capitalism.
If you’re one of the one-fifth of children in West Virginia born with drugs or alcohol in your system, if you ingest lead from peeling paint as a toddler, if your hearing or vision impairments aren’t detected, if you live in a home with no books in a gang-ridden neighborhood with terrible schools — in all these cases, you’re programmed for failure as surely as children of professionals are programed for success.
So when kids in poverty stumble, it’s not quite right to say that they “failed.” Often, they never had a chance.
Researchers also find that financial stress sometimes impairs cognitive function, leading to bad choices. Indian farmers, for example, test higher for I.Q. after a harvest when they are financially secure. Alleviate financial worry, and you can gain 13 points in measured I.Q.
How, in the face of all this inequality of opportunity, can we still believe in meritocratic outcomes? The woman Kristof used to illustrate American poverty, her name is Truffles. No one can sit here and tell me that they would have achieved as much in their lives if their mother’s name was Truffles. Just, no.
We believe the myth of American meritocracy for several reasons. First, many people are profoundly ignorant of the lifelong lasting impacts of factors such as insufficient childhood nutrition, neglect, stress and so on. They’re also ignorant of the frequency and depth of those factors. It’s difficult to imagine that in America, kids are going to bed full of Oreos instead of nutritious food. It’s tough to grab hold of just how bad many, many public schools are. It’s insufferably uncomfortable to fathom a reality in which your father is in prison, and to think about how that might impact your life and your choices.
But perhaps even worse, we think that if we admit that American meritocracy is a myth, we have to correct it through force. If we recognize the reality that we don’t start out on an even playing field, we are morally compelled to grab a bulldozer and make it so.
This, too, is wrong. No, we don’t live in a meritocracy. No one ever has. No one ever will. Recognizing this, what can we do to make it better?
The answer is, we help each other.
Kristof points out that “the poorest 20 percent of Americans give away a larger share of their incomes than the wealthiest 20 percent.” And this is because, he suggests, that they get it. They understand that there’s far more at work than individual choices. They have internalized the phrase, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”
We don’t get a more even playing field by pretending we have one or by mandating the government provides it. If only it were so! They’re both a lot easier.
We get a more even playing field by knocking down the government-erected barriers to entry into the marketplace such as shitty public schools, the war on drugs and licensure laws. We get one by knocking down the private barriers to entry such as racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. We get one by eliminating privilege-granting regulations so we may set entrepreneurs free to create the prosperity which has afforded us increases in standards of living, across the board, at levels no one thought possible.
And we get one by giving. We can’t stop Truffles’ mother from naming her Truffles. But we can get her son help with his hearing. You and I can do this, together, no state necessary.
There is an income gap in America, but just as important is a compassion gap. Plenty of successful people see a picture of a needy child and their first impulse is not to help but to reproach.
Let’s stop that right now. We have a common enemy, and it’s poverty, not the poor. It’s not left-versus-right, poor-versus-rich, meritocracy-versus-socialism. It’s recognizing the reality of the situation for what it is, and doing what works to make it better.
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