I heard social worker and researcher Brené Brown say recently on her thought-provoking podcast, “We’re all susceptible to information that delivers us from pain.”
There are so many people in pain in America right now. Actual physical pain—the pain of abuse, addiction, withdrawal, hunger, untreated and undertreated medical conditions. But also emotional and existential pain like isolation or hopelessness, anxiety or depression, which of course become physical, given time. As we know, the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated all the situations that lead to this suffering. We are a nation in pain.
We not only feel left behind; many of us have actually been left behind economically and educationally and technologically. And these left-behind Americans are often the ones most susceptible to racist, sexist, homophobic, and transphobic ideologies, because the blame helps displace—even momentarily—their pain.
Journalist and activist Dorothy Day once said, “Let’s build a society where it’s easier for people to be good to each other.” Everyone knows how hunger and lack of sleep make us grumpy and less generous. Just extend that to a more generalized sense of scarcity—and not just its sense, but its reality. According to the Pew Research Center, America’s income inequality is the worst of all G7 nations. This trend extends to our savings, too. “The wealth gap between America’s richest and poorer families more than doubled from 1989 to 2016,” Pew concludes, and further: “In 1989, the richest 5% of families had 114 times as much wealth as families in the second quintile (one tier above the lowest)…. By 2016, the top 5% held 248 times as much wealth at the median.”
A society where it’s easier for us to be good to each other is one where the folks at the median aren’t pathologically stressed about whether we can afford to see a doctor or to buy the lifesaving medication she prescribes to us, whether we can afford to feed our children or house them or clothe them, whether to pay our student loans or our heating bill. A society where it’s easier for us to be good to each other is one that offers good and affordable public education, health insurance that isn’t tied to your employment status at any given moment, maybe even universal basic income. It’s a society with less pain.
Fiscal conservatives have tried to convince us—and have done so with relative success for years—that what’s at stake when it comes to offering government welfare is our dignity. So who has more dignity, the man who suffers from ongoing homelessness and addiction without help, or the same man receiving the help he needs so that he can overcome those obstacles? The single mom who works three jobs just to afford diapers and formula and daycare, or the same mom who can afford necessities for her children while working one full-time job?
For Americans, poverty has largely been a temporary phenomenon. For example, according to analysis by the US Census Bureau, “While 29% of the nation’s population was in poverty for at least two months between the start of 2004 and the end of 2006, only 3% were poor during the entire period.” Poverty, hunger, homelessness—these things have never defined who we are; they have only defined our suffering.
So if the problem isn’t who we are, why is asking for help so taboo in American culture? As President Obama said in 2012, “If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help.” Achievement is not personal. It is always a communal effort. We refuse to acknowledge the help we received in order to claim individual superiority about our success, but we are doing so at the expense of all the help that we and the generations coming after us will need in order to truly thrive.
Not being able to ask for help is literally killing us. Suicide rates in America are among the highest of all wealthy nations. From 1999 to 2018, the suicide rate in the US increased 35% to 14.2 suicides for every 100,000 people, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. American culture blames people for needing help in the first place, and then again when they ask for help. For some, suicide is the tragic outcome.
For a culture that loves and upholds the ethics of the family, we seem strangely unwilling to extend help to all of God’s children. And we can certainly afford to do it. Just one egregious example: in 2018, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos made in 11.5 seconds what it took his lowest-paid employees all year to earn. These employees, by the way, are the same ones now risking their lives by coming to work at warehouses every day during this pandemic, while employees near Bezos’s level get to work safely from home.
In a 1967 speech at Riverside Church in New York City, Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
In America, we have spent decades flinging our coins at Indigenous people, the descendants of enslaved people, refugees, single mothers, the mentally ill, the starving, the homeless, the unemployed, the rural poor, the less fortunate. Under the coronavirus pandemic, our shameful institutions are producing more beggars than ever in this country. It’s long past time we tore up this road. In 2021, let’s get to work building a new and much better one.