Fairness, empathy, poverty, and politics

Shopping for supplies with food vouchers (9661073235)

According to a recent article in The Atlantic, for the first time in history a majority of U.S. members of Congress are millionaires. In addition, “only 13 out of 783 members of Congress from 1999 to 2008 came from a ‘blue-collar’ upbringing. None of them have experienced that poverty in decades; those who did did so under vastly different public-policy circumstances.”

We are social creatures, but if the only society that our leaders keep is with other wealthy people, it’s easy to lose touch with the true state of the larger society.

I think the problem extends beyond those elected to national office. Even national political appointees and elected state and local officials are tend to come from the minority of college-educated professionals who have the connections to funding that will get them into office and help keep them there.

As I wrote in a previous post, those in society who have surplus resources can spend their surplus defending their surplus and gaining more. This trend stretches back to our switch from hunter-gathered to agrarian.Those who got the prime growing land or fishing spots generated more surplus resources, which they could use to guard and enhance their status.

As long as everyone has enough, some people having more-than-enough can be tolerated. But in an increasingly stratified and economically immobile society, leaders can easily lose touch with what having enough truly means.

As stated in the Atlantic, many politicians “claim that ‘$250,000 a year is middle class in my district.’ Such claims [are], of course, wildly exaggerated. Even in the richest district in the country, Virginia‚Äôs 10th, over 80 percent of residents fall below that level.”

This all seems paradoxical to me. If leaders believe that $250,000 is a middle-class household income for Americans, and if leaders value the society around them, I would hope they might have concern and empathy for families trying to live on, say, 20 percent of a middle-class income, or $50,000.

Yet the federal poverty level for a family of four is set at $23,850, or less than one-tenth of that supposedly middle-class lifestyle. Do they not see the disconnect here?

Since we are social creatures, is there a social solution to this problem? The Atlantic piece opens with a scene of someone at a grocery check-out line having to decide which food to not purchase due to lack of funds. Put back the eggs or the plums? If our society was more economically integrated, through different choices about zoning and housing policies, then the affluent might see more of these choices that are being made every day in their communities.

But since the wealthy also control the processes and policies about things like zoning and housing, this seems unlikely.

Could a social media campaign that documented the trade-offs made by those in poverty reach the affluent people in charge? What would such a campaign look like? I fear that this might be a case where no even seeing will lead to believing.

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