By Kenneth L. Stewart
When it comes to helping the needy, there are two kinds of Americans.
One is filled with empathy and committed to altruism, although acts of charity lag behind.
The other has a sense of social justice that compels support for various public social programs.
That duality — found in a University of Chicago survey that included questions, funded by the Fetzer Institute in Michigan, to measure American’s altruism and track their charitable acts — represents a real division in American consciousness of people in need.
Many Americans “feel for” the less fortunate, and believe they should help.
Beyond these well-intentioned motivations, however, the survey shows the frequency of charitable acts by Americans does not match their empathy and altruism.
While Americans who are personally more empathetic and altruistic are more likely to engage in charity, this was only a modest correlation.
Acts of charity lag behind feelings of empathy and commitments to altruism.
The survey also found that whatever motivations arise from empathy and altruism translate little into support for public social programs.
The correlation here is downright weak.
Instead, the factor that has direct bearing on support for public social programs is an ideological sense of social justice.
People’s beliefs on issues like whether “government should do something about income differences between rich and poor” have a strong correlation to their support publicly funded social programs.
Like these two Americans, intellectuals concerned with social policy have long been of two mindsets.
“Unlike private charity which depends on the goodwill of the benefactor,” said no less an iconic advocate of American democracy in history than Alexis de Toqueville, “public relief is a matter of legal right. And it is that assurance, the right to relief, that undermines the incentive to work and thus tends to pauperize the poor.”
Who among the empathetic and altruistic Americans does not feel this way?
Perhaps charity lags behind empathy and altruism because too many of the needy appear to be inclined toward “pauperization” or “welfare dependency.”
Charity, at least, gives benefactors some power to sort out the “deserving” from the “undeserving.”
The other intellectual mindset was framed well by the leftist-thinking social scientist Michael Harrington.
“It is a noble sentiment,” wrote Harrington, “to argue that private moral responsibility expressing itself through charitable contributions should be the main instrument of attacking poverty. The only problem is that such an approach does not work.”
Knowing full well that social programs took root in America in response to failing charity, one American lends support to public social programs out of an understanding that the immense problem of poverty dwarfs individual acts of charity.
The other American embraces charity and believes in person-to-person assistance, in lifting himself by touching others, and in “tough love.”
But whenever he over-emphasizes the power of his individual contribution, and fails to bind his good intentions to causes for social justice, he only leaves the troubled and needy in a state of what Harrington called “innocent cruelty.”
Kenneth L. Stewart is a professor of sociology at Angelo State University, in San Angelo, Tex.