How We Respond to Poverty

Monday’s Washington Post carries an article about how people respond to tragedy. It says that numerous psychological experiments have found that we automatically seek to find the cause. When we can assign responsibility to an individual or group of individuals, “something clicks in our minds that makes the tragedy seem worse than if it had been caused by an act of nature, disease or even human apathy.”

So we tend to minimize the effects of tragedies that don’t have “a sinister agent” behind them. “We think harms of actions are much worse than harms of omission,” even when doing nothing causes much greater harms.

These findings might apply to poverty and policy. Perhaps we, as a society, don’t focus on the extensive harms to victims or remedies for their suffering because we can’t identify a culprit. Politics, yes. Social and economic factors, yes. But not evil-doers we can punish.

Or perhaps it’s because many Americans feel they have identified the culprits–poor people themselves. They don’t want to work. They lack self-discipline. They spend their money on booze and drugs. Etc.

Or maybe it’s that poverty is so complex that we’re baffled in the search for a cause. We know how to alleviate suffering, but not how to prevent it on a large-scale basis. We want a silver bullet and won’t focus our policy agenda on  the tragedies of poverty because we don’t have it.

What do you think?


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