Some of those who favor compassion are not so sure about justice. It’s almost instinctive to alleviate human suffering – hunger, disease, slavery, extreme poverty, etc. Other than extreme sociopathic disorders we are hard wired to empathize with those who suffer.
And many of those who extend compassion to meet emergency needs are naturally led to justice. Even though it’s a cliché, sooner or later those who are picking up the wounded and dead at the bottom of a cliff will want to build a fence to prevent people from falling off. It makes no sense to continue to respond to symptoms without addressing the root causes.
But it is not that simple. In my years of working with compassionate neighborhood programs focused primarily on family homelessness, health care, early childhood programs and job training I observed three causes for suffering.
Bad luck — Bad decisions — Bad systems – i.e.,unaffordable housing, lack of jobs, dysfunctional schools
Each of these needs deeper understanding.
It was Oscar Lewis who coined the phrase “culture of poverty.” His research lead him to understand that intractable poverty is not just the lack of money. Poverty breads it’s own culture which is handed down from one generation to the next.
There is a big difference between the poverty say of the Great Depression and that of ingrained poverty in the United States. My parents would be considered very poor by today’s standards. And yet this so-called Greatest Generation did not think of themselves as poor. I never heard my parents talk about being poor. They told me about times when there was not enough in the house to eat properly. And we didn’t have doctors. With all of my siblings we were born in the home of my mother’s oldest sister who was a midwife.
As I often heard it on the street – we were not poor, just broke.
And the idea of a culture of poverty led to the idea of “breaking the cycle of poverty.” This was the heart of the War On Poverty begun 50 years ago. I recognized that without intervention poverty and its results of homelessness, hunger, disease and unemployment would continue.
It was a recognition that the social systems needed to be changed.
But what of the children who are born into the culture of poverty? They didn’t choose to be without a stable neighborhood and many of the necessities that most of take for granted.
What is a homeless family to do when their income from social benefits or low-income employment is little more than the most affordable rent? The rule of thumb is that no low-income family should spend more than 40 percent of their income on housing. The reality is that there is not enough affordable housing for low-income families. The system isn’t working for everyone.
And here it gets complicated. I’ve seen people who for no fault of their own who were born into a destructive culture of poverty, and as hard they tried could not pull themselves up by their bootstraps to find a job paying a living wage. They compounded their problems and limited their chances for a better life with bad decisions like dropping out of school, teen-age out of wedlock pregnancies, drug use and distribution.
Often this all that is seen – blaming the victim.