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Maureen Lane

That “We” Feeling

In the late 18th century, philosopher David Hume classified sympathy or that feeling we have for fellow human beings, as the foundation of moral obligation. "Hume writes, “The same social sympathy, we may observe, or fellow-feeling with human happiness or misery.”

Hume saw our human empathy as the basis of morality. He figured human beings generally did not go around hurting others not so much because of rational thought but because we have that ‘fellow-feeling’ toward each other.

Hume notes we are heartened more by personal good news or good tidings of our friends or loved ones than to ‘some distant commonwealth’.

Hume thought nature focuses us on our personal connections so our actions will have impact. So we don’t spread ourselves too thin and to aid our understanding. We understand things easier that are familiar to us.

The personal is universal.

Unless we start thinking about others as not the same as us. In Hume’s era many thought of African slavery as about people not like us, for example.

This week in City Limits, Tram Whitehurst writes, “New York City is changing the way it measures poverty among its residents. By the middle of next year, the city will replace the federal poverty measure—which has been used for almost 40 years—with new guidelines it is developing to get a better picture of who is living in poverty and how city initiatives affect those residents…The goal…. is to advance the discussion about poverty and to highlight the distance between the poverty level and financial stability…. inform the way government looks at poverty and makes funding decisions.”

Right now there is a little bit of 'them and us' in policy discourse. If we start thinking about the economic divide in new ways, we might actually find dynamic solutions and strategies that envelop more of 'us.'

In the article Merble Reagon, Executive Director, Women’s Center for Education and Career Advancement notes, "a household in Queens with one adult, one preschooler and one school age child would have to make $54,961 just to cover basic expenses, according to the standard. The federal poverty level for the same family is $17,170. “

That means that the families of 3 with incomes in between $54,961 and $17,170 are struggling just like the families below poverty level. That's a big chunk of 'us' and a smaller and smaller number of 'them'.

In the last 5 or 6 years measures have shown a growing income divide in the U.S. In Adrian Wooldridge's article for The Economist "Meritocracy in America", he argues ”Income inequality is growing to levels not seen since the Gilded Age, around the 1880s. But social mobility is not increasing at anything like the same pace: would-be Horatio Algers are finding it no easier to climb from rags to riches, while the children of the privileged have a greater chance of staying at the top of the social heap."

It is clear the more we understand and recognize those things in life that unite humanity the more we connect to that ‘fellow-feeling.’ Often we are instructed that the poor are the “underclass” and very different from the rest of us. The result are public policies that actually hinder our fellows. To name a couple, I have written of many welfare and education policies that prevent people from advancing.

In stark contrast to the need, government programs that should be available to those in need have eligibility thresholds that are low-painfully low. Most government programs do not apply to people at over 200 % of the poverty line when it is evident that more people need more resources to be economically secure. This separates us even more.

The economic measure work that is highlighted in the City Limits piece bodes well for those who believe more in "we" than in them and us.

Maureen Lane: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 7:20 AM, Nov 22, 2007 in Progressive Agenda | Welfare
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