Society needs to care

Heather Nichols-Haining

If you raise the standards of living for select communities, you will raise the standard of living for everyone. As an ardent supporter of increasing public spending to pull more people out of poverty, I believe this rhetoric as much as anyone. While I was being trained to talk about my research concerning poverty in Washington State, I was taught that one of the best ways to frame my argument is by emphasizing how changes that affect people living in poverty affect the whole community. For example, by lowering poverty rates in Walla Walla, we can also decrease crime, raise the education bar for everyone, raise housing property values and accomplish a whole range of other positive benefits for the community.

While I really do believe this rhetoric and think it’s important to emphasize that people within communities benefit financially from watching out for each other, there is something missing. It is almost taboo to say that we should care about people living in poverty because they are our friends, family members, neighbors, fellow Americans, fellow human beings: but these are the kinds of conversations we need to be having. We have moved forward together as a society, and it is as a society that we must care for each other.

Of course there is room for personal choices and personal mistakes, and of course some people are poor because they made poor decisions, and there are many people who overcome poverty despite structural barriers. But a large amount of people are poor because society is not set up for everyone to succeed. School systems are often inadequate, prisons are over-crowded and children who grow up in poverty are significantly more likely to be poor as adults than children who grow up in wealthier families. It’s not a coincidence that the people who are the poorest in our society are women, children and racial and ethnic minorities. Our society is set up to financially benefit white males. All this means is that society as a whole is failing certain people. If our social institutions are not designed to benefit everyone in our society, then we as individuals and as communities have a responsibility to the people we have failed.

Caring about people can concretely help the whole community. There are real financial gains to be made from raising the standard of living in an entire community. But it is not good enough to focus on this as the main reason why people should care about other people. People should care about people because we have the capacity to empathize, because we as a society are responsible for each other, because sometimes bad things happen to good people.

Policy changes should be considered not by how they will affect us individually, but how they will affect our neighbors. Advocates for social change should not have to frame their arguments in terms of  how the community will benefit from raising the standard of living for the poorest. The simple fact of helping people out of tough times should be an adequate enough reason to support positive change. Call it an American value, call it God’s will, call it human nature if you want: you’ll be hard-pressed to find a set of morals that does not prioritize caring for others.