Friday, Aug. 16, 2013 | 2:01 a.m.
America was once the land of Lady Liberty, beckoning the world: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”
Today’s America — at least as measured by the actions and inactions of the pariahs who roam its halls of power and the people who put them there — is insular, cruel and uncaring.
In this America, people blame welfare for creating poverty rather than for mitigating the impact of it. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in June found that the No. 1 reason people gave for our continuing poverty crisis was: “Too much welfare that prevents initiative.”
In this America, the House can — as it did in July — pass a farm bill that left out the food stamp program at a time when a record number of Americans, nearly 48 million, are depending on the benefits.
In this America, a land of immigrants, comprehensive immigration can be stalled in The People’s Branch of government, and anti-reform mouthpieces such as Ann Coulter and Pat Buchanan can warn that immigration reform will be the end of the country.
And in today’s America, poverty and homelessness can easily seep beneath the wall we erect in our minds to define it.
A December report by the U.S. Conference of Mayors that surveyed 25 cities found that all but four of them reported an increase in requests for emergency food aid since 2011, and three-fourths of them expected those requests to increase in 2013.
The report also found that 60 percent of the cities surveyed had seen an increase in homelessness, and the same percentage of cities expected homelessness to increase in 2013.
But poverty isn’t easily written off as an inner-city ailment. It has become a suburban problem. A report this week by the Brookings Institution found that “during the 2000s, major metropolitan suburbs became home to the largest and fastest-growing poor population in America.”
Nor can economic insecurity be written off as a minority-only issue. According to survey results published last month by the Associated Press:
“Nonwhites still have a higher risk of being economically insecure, at 90 percent. But compared with the official poverty rate, some of the biggest jumps under the newer measure are among whites, with more than 76 percent enduring periods of joblessness, life on welfare or near-poverty.”
How did we come to such a pass? Why aren’t more politicians — and people in general — expressing outrage and showing empathy?
Part of our condition is obviously partisan. Republicans have become the party of “blame the victim.” Whatever your lesser lot in life, it’s completely within your means to correct, according to their logic. Poverty, hunger, homelessness and desperation aren’t violence to the spirit but motivation to the will. If you want more and you work harder, all your problems will disappear. Of course, that narrow conservative doctrine denies a broader reality: that there are working poor and chronically unemployed — people who want, who work, and who want to work but are stuck on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder.
In this regard, Republicans have all but abandoned the idea of compassionate conservatism and are diving headlong into callous conservatism.
But another problem may be more broad-based: the way that many Americans look at the poor with disgust.
As Susan Fiske, a Princeton professor who has studied people’s attitudes toward the poor for more than a decade, told me:
“The stereotypes of poor people in the United States are among the most negative prejudices that we have. And people basically view particularly homeless people as having no redeeming qualities — there’s not the competence for anything, not having good intentions and not being trustworthy.”
Fiske’s research shows that people respond not only to the poor and homeless with revulsion, but they also react negatively to people they perceive as undocumented immigrants — essentially anyone without an address.
If some people’s impulse is to turn up a nose rather than extend a hand, no wonder we send so many lawmakers empty of empathy to Congress. No wonder more people don’t demand that Congress stand up for the least among us rather than on them.
As Fiske so aptly put it: “It seems like Washington is a place without pity right now. A town without pity.”
Charles Blow is a columnist for The New York Times.