Uncategorized · July 16, 2023 1

Why Is It So Hard To Love Our Neighbors?

Marty Levine

July 16, 2023

This is from a recent issue of SALON, “Experts predicted America was racing towards a ‘looming hunger cliff.’ They were right, data shows.” The story went on to cite a warning issued by the Alliance to End Hunger that “26.5 million Americans reportedfood insecurity as of June 19, according to the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey — the most thus far in 2023 and the highest number since December 2020.” 

That kind of story, one that gives us data about current or impending human suffering, is all too common today.  And in so many cases, as a society, we have ways to mitigate, even eliminate, the harm. As a society we have things we can do that would remedy these horrors.

These stories have often been the spur for me to write another blog post hoping to make a difference in the national debate about the role government should play in easing pain.

Yet, as I have written too often over the past decade, we, as a nation, refuse to take decisive action to ease the pain and lower the harm. We know that people are harmed by being forced to live in poverty. We have evidence that giving people a guaranteed income makes a significant difference in the quality of their lives. We know it eases pain.

Yet, when expansion of the Federal earned income tax credit that was prompted by the COVID-19 emergency could have been extended by an act of Congress, we allowed it to sunset despite knowing that it made a major difference in moving millions out of the depths of poverty. Lastt October I cited a an article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, that told us what we will find when we look at the many “experimental” cash payment programs that philanthropists were funding in cities across the nation. Giving Cash Directly to People in Need Is a Growing Trend, as Evidence Shows It Works relied on the work of  Benjamin Soskis of the Urban Institute that showed that there were intangible benefits of giving cash that were found beyond its sheer economic impact. His research “found two key advantages of giving cash over longstanding charity approaches: The money reached people fast, which was especially important in the Covid pandemic, and it had no strings attached so it provided flexibility. ‘One lesson you could very clearly take away is that cash was a very powerful tool in helping people in desperate need and that it also has a powerful message about trusting those that you want to help.’”  Despite seeing over and over that these programs make life better they remain trials and experiments and not national policy. 

Just the other morning I finished my morning workout with MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” in the background.  They were talking about how decades ago scientists predicted the kind of environmental challenges we are living with today if we did not limit human impact on our earth. Their report was received by a Congressional panel which, when told that the impact was going to be seen 40 years in the future, asked them to come back in 39 years. It was just too hard for them to act before things got very bad.

Pick a problem that affects millions. Pick one that poses a future threat to millions and you can find similar stories of available solutions, denials, and political inaction.

I find myself wondering why it is that in a nation that prides itself on seeing all lives as equal, we care so little about the most vulnerable of our neighbors.

Why is it that so many politicians and policymakers can support policies that directly do so much harm?  What is it that often causes a leader to do an about-face, reject what they previously recognized as good and needed,  to support policies that hurt those they supposedly serve?

Do Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, Texas Governor Greg Abbot and their fellow political leaders in the 20 states that have enacted laws that single out the Trans community by demonizing them and by ending their access to needed medical and support services not hear the voices of those who they are hurting? Do they not hear the voices of people like retired US Army Colonel who described to CNN the personal impact of one state’s effort:  “Bottom line, it is Kansas trying to erase who I am the past eight years. I have lived as the person that I am and not just lived but really donated to society and supported the folks around me as the person that I am. And despite all that, they want to erase me.” Do they not hear the pain of being erased?

When social safety net programs like guaranteed income efforts are stopped, do they not hear the pain they are causing? The Congress, to head off the threat of a national default agreed to modify the qualifications for receiving SNAP benefits (Food Stamps).  Despite our knowing that most people who receive these benefits are already working, and despite our knowing that those not working cannot work, and despite unemployment already being at historic lows (meaning there are few jobs waiting for workers), Congress and the President agreed that it was ok, “as part of the new budget cuts package, recipients are required to work until the age of 55. According to The Center for Public Integrity, the new stipulations also make it harder for states to waive those work rules …”  And these changes came on top of the ending of $28 billion of expanded SNAP funding designed to ease the toll be taken by COVID. There should be no surprise that millions are now food insecure, a polite way of saying they are struggling just to feed themselves and their families.

Do they not hear the pain of those who are now forced to cut back on their already modest food budget? Do they not hear Casandra Babb who, as reported by Fox news, “after finding out she had an inflammatory disease, had to drastically change her diet, leading her and her husband to apply for SNAP benefits recently. ‘If I don’t get the food I need to eat, my legs will swell so big, that at some point I will be immobile… After February 2023, the average family of four on SNAP benefits can expect to see a reduction of $360 per month. An average reduction of $90 per person, per month. ‘I just don’t know how I’m going to be able to afford everything that I need to buy,’ said Babb, whose income supports her and her disabled husband.”

The same budget deal also, according to the Lever, directed “states to resume annual redeterminations of Medicaid recipients’ eligibility for the program. Now, an estimated 17 million people, and potentially up to 24 million, could lose their coverage. Studies suggest that expanding Medicaid coverage substantially reduces deaths and positively impacts people in poverty throughout their entire lives.”

Or this story from yesterday’s Washington Post about policy decisions to end help to unhoused people. “Now the state has said it cannot afford to continue the program, which used more than $190 million in federal funding through April. But three years in, many at the Cortina Inn still have no permanent place to go. The hotel became home. ‘I’m trying to work something out,’ Bradt said. Thinking about the future brought on a debilitating feeling of anxiety. ‘I’m not sure where I’m going to go.’” Without enough money to pay sharply increasing rents and the end of the COVID-inspired moratorium on evictions, becoming unhoused looms for too many people.

Policy after policy, legislation (passed or blocked), and court decisions handed down, all have an impact on real people living real lives. And all too often they cause harm and they cause pain. All too often the impact is known and those who will be hurt are identifiable. And they are ignored. The harm and the pain are ignored as if these were not real people.

How is that so possible in this country? How is it that we can turn our heads away and close our eyes and ears so easily. How is it that those who cause the pain cannot even acknowledge the impact of what they are doing?

Those who support a government that looks the other way while its people suffer offer several justifications. One is that we can’t afford to help them. These “fixes” are just too expensive. Raising taxes to pay for them would hurt “the economy.” What we don’t hear is any deep discussion about the people who are being hurt, who are clearly are deemed to be unworthy of being prioritized. And, so, we maintain the tax system that allows the ultrawealthy to hoard their wealth,. Actually, according to Senator Ron Wyden,, “there are two tax codes in America. The first is mandatory for workers who pay taxes out of every paycheck. The second is voluntary for billionaires who defer paying taxes for years, if not indefinitely. Two tax codes allow billionaires to use largely untaxed income from wealth to build more wealth while working families struggle to balance the mortgage against groceries, and utilities against saving for the future. That’s why it’s time for a Billionaire’s Income Tax. The Billionaires Income Tax would ensure billionaires pay tax every year, just like working Americans…“

Any thought of fixing these disparities or raising the needed government revenues by raising tax rates and redistributing the hoarded wealth of a small number of ultra rich men and women is dismissed as ludicrous.

A second argument for letting people suffer is that the people who are hurt will actually be helped by being left to suffer.  A government helping hand will do more damage than going hungry or being unhoused. It is okay if individuals, through their personal philanthropy, want to be the helping hand but it is just plain bad for us to do that as a part of our collective action. The subtext is often that people need this help because they have failed to take care of themselves. They just don’t work hard enough and live wisely. Helping them just rewards their bad behavior. 

There is a callousness to these times, and the endless debate that substitutes for actions that will improve lives., For me,  this willingness to ignore the pain of others, and the refusal to see that we are causing the pain by our actions and inactions is more and more horrifying.

  Every Saturday morning, I find myself staring at these words from Reb Heschel, “We are commanded to love our neighbors. This must mean that we can”. Would that we learn that lesson? And because we can, we must.