There’s a concept in social psychology that goes something like this: When other people err, we attribute it to flaws in their character; when we screw up, we blame it on circumstances – the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.
So when someone else runs up credit card debt, we think “spendthrift.” When we do it, it’s because of a medical emergency and necessary student loans.
Alan Jennings, executive director of the Community Action Committee of the Lehigh Valley, says he has seen this type of thinking amplified since the economy tanked. Instead of sympathizing with those who lost their jobs or homes, some blame the poor for their plight – which makes it so much easier to justify not helping them.
These critics have found a home on the Internet. I’m always struck by the vitriol – often from anonymous cowards – that shows up in comment sections after online stories about someone who is struggling financially.
“The people whose mean spirit and ideology lead them to oppose any expression of sympathy for people who are on the margins are getting more and more effective at convincing [others] that those people are not victims, but perpetrators,” Jennings said.
It’s been a tough year for Community Action. President Obama proposed cutting in half Community Services Block Grants and House GOP leadership sought to eliminate them entirely. Jennings credits Lehigh Valley Republican Rep. Charlie Dent with helping to save most of the grant money, which is vital to the group’s anti-poverty programs.
The federal stimulus funds that pay for CACLV’s weatherization program to make homes of low-income people more energy efficient will dry up in March and CACLV is expecting to lay off about 20 workers.
After initially fearing it would have to close Safe Harbor, a homeless shelter and soup kitchen in Easton, CACLV is transferring the operation to an advisory board as of Oct. 1, with some seed money for the first couple of years. Last year, Safe Harbor sheltered more than 300 men and women and provided 17,000 meals for those in need.
Some people hesitate to give to charities out of fear much of their gift will be eaten up in fundraising and administrative costs – a valid concern. But CACLV spent just 7.6 percent of its budget on those expenses last year, Jennings said. That’s low even compared to other reputable charities, like the American Red Cross, which spends about 10 percent on fundraising and administration.
Those who clamor for government to cut spending often argue that helping the misfortunate should be left to private charities and churches. But such groups will tell you that they don’t have the capacity to help everyone in need without some government funding, particularly in this economy.
This is no time for Americans to forget how to walk a mile in another man’s shoes.