How to Shrink the Dangerous Republican Empathy Gap

Jill Lawrence

What recent event is going to be more defining for the Republican Party, Sen. Rob Portman’s about-face on gay marriage or the stridentrhetoric of the Conservative Political Action Conference? The GOP ought to pray it’s the former and hope it keeps the party’s empathy gap from turning into the Grand Canyon.

Politicians shouldn’t have to be poor to understand what it’s like to be poor: to have no money for a doctor, the rent, tuition or even food; to understand how that hampers people’s ability to envision and move toward a better future; and to realize that making their lives more difficult isn’t the answer. They shouldn’t have to be sick, or have a sick child, to understand what it would be like to have no insurance or regular doctor. But too many Republicans apparently don't understand, to the detriment of their party and to their country as well.

There are stacks of speeches and policies, topped by the Paul Ryan budget and Mitt Romney’s 47 percent monologue, that suggest many Republicans are misreading the psychology and realities of poverty, the motivations of people who are trying to escape it, and the catalytic role government can play in nourishing productive citizens. They are looking at the safety net through the lens of people who have food, shelter, health insurance, a good education, a job, an American passport and a mom-dad-buddy-and-sis family, who have never been anything but blessed and mainstream in America.

Republicans don’t have to give up their principles or their critiques of federal safety-net programs, which could be streamlined and improved in many ways. But they should at least try to understand the lives of others and align their policies with reality. Here are five places to start:

  • A compelling response to Romney’s 47-percent debacle by New York Times columnist David Brooks, a Republican. Brooks eviscerated what he characterized as Romney’s view that “people who are forced to make it on their own have drive. People who receive benefits have dependency.” “Middle-class parents don’t deprive their children of benefits so they can learn to struggle on their own. They shower benefits on their children to give them more opportunities,” he wrote. “People are motivated when they feel competent. They are motivated when they have more opportunities. Ambition is fired by possibility, not by deprivation.”
  • I Was a Welfare Mother,” an essay that Larkin Warren published in The New York Times last fall. As a young single mother relying on tuition and housing aid, Warren realized she’d have to quit school unless she applied for welfare and food stamps for herself and her son. It was, she says, a responsible decision. She graduated, got a job, remarried, and doesn’t apologize for taking the help. “My husband and I have paid big taxes and raised a hard-working son who pays a chunk of change as well,” she says. The gritty details – what led to her problems, why her family couldn’t help, the exact types of aid she received and how it all came together – are well worth reading.
  • An equally gritty Washington Post story about the role of food stamps in holding up the economy of an entire town in Rhode Island. The piece makes clear that deep cuts in federal programs would create huge hardship, not just for individuals but for businesses. More important, it illuminates the life of a couple on food stamps. They are young, they are married, they have two children, and they work. But much like the hunter-gatherers of old, they spend nearly all their time making sure their family is fed – obsessively making lists, comparing prices, weighing the costs and benefits of lower prices versus a car trip across town. Their focus is on survival, not planning for a better future.
  • Social science research on the consequences of “decision fatigue” – constant choices and tradeoffs that result in an erosion of willpower and self-discipline. “Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car,” John Tierney wrote in a fascinating New York Times magazine piece. Researchers, he said, believe it can help trap people in poverty: “Because their financial situation forces them to make so many tradeoffs, they have less willpower to devote to school, work and other activities that might get them into the middle class.”
  • An ongoing study of the winners and losers in an Oregon lottery to expand Medicaid coverage. Findings so far suggest that people on Medicaid were more likely to visit a hospital, take medication, get preventive screenings and see a regular doctor. So yes, they cost the system money. They also reported themselves to be happier, healthier and more financially stable than those who did not receive Medicaid. I would argue that’s the more important outcome from the standpoints of both morality and productivity. However you feel about the much larger national expansion of Medicaid coming next year in the new health law, though, it’s probably not constructive for the GOP’s broader future to have South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley on national TV at CPAC vowing that “we will not expand Medicaid. Ever.” She says her state takes care of its own, but more than 20 percent have no health insurance.

Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, is talking up a plan this week to rebuild the GOP. Its elements include fewer debates, a shorter primary season and a continuing presence in communities and on campuses. The idea is to publicize the party’s history and goals, become better known, minimize what Priebus calls intraparty "slicing and dicing," and thereby improve its brand. But none of that will help if most Republicans keep talking and acting as if people with problems are not their problem.