A Little More Empathy

“She pulls her little sister close and lies down on the bed. Lily is desperate for sleep but can’t stop thinking, ‘I am so lucky.’”

Lily, 17 years old, calls Faile Street home. It’s not your typical street: it’s known for open drug deals, gang activity, pimps, and prostitutes. She goes to a high boarding school for girls who live in high-risk homes, and on Fridays, she returns to South Bronx where her mother and three younger siblings stay. A few years earlier, as a middle-school student, she barely made it to high school when she saw her school records present her as a poor student – low attendance rates and deteriorating grades. But the records do not scratch the surface of her story as a young girl forced to become the mother of her younger siblings. A young girl who is the head of the family when her mother disappeared for days on end. A young girl who has to raise a family within the vandalized walls of a destitute neighbourhood.

Lily’s story was not a major headline anywhere. Statistics like “15% of Americans live in poverty” and “almost 900,000 Canadian children live in poverty” are the only indications of youth like Lily who struggle daily to make ends meet. But to many of us, they are simply what they are: statistics, not real stories. At school, I am certain I sit beside students who share much in common with Lily – perhaps a peer who is struggling to pass the course or someone who never seems to have the time to get involved with the myriad clubs. Yet what I see, and what I may think, is that they are unmotivated and not very hardworking. But there is so much more to it than just grades or extracurricular involvement. Living in an environment that is so hostile to physical and mental wellbeing took away any energy Lily had left for education:

“Overwhelmed, Lily crashed. She became depressed, started cutting herself, and withdrew from almost everyone. She still has some fight left. It enabled her to graduate from high school last spring, by the slimmest of margins.”

The news story that struck me the most last year was Lily’s story. It may not have any national impact, but it greatly embodies the social inequality that we know is everywhere, but invisible to our eyes.

I guess this is where I might start pointing my finger to problems with welfare programs, taxation rates, or income inequality. It may seem like it’s a problem that can be fixed with an adjustment in tax policy, or increased government funding. And it probably can be fixed with those tools. But this is a multi-dimensional problem in which monetary policies solve only one side of the puzzle. This article illustrates how local growth, parenting and local government spending are important factors and causes for poverty. It reaches three conclusions:

The probability of a child born into the bottom quintile to be in the top quintile at age 30 increases if:

1. Per capita income grows;

2. The household has two parents;

3. Local government expenditure per capita increases.

The graph below illustrates the relationship between economic mobility with the number of parents that bring up the child:

Graph1

Graph from: http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/01/if-you-really-care-about-ending-poverty-stop-talking-about-inequality/282906/

The article states: “Income inequality, although well-meaning, is distracting us from the most important pieces in the poverty puzzle.” There are more factors at play, and while income is a major player, it is by no means the solution to poverty. By injecting money into Lily’s bank account would definitely help, but viewing poverty as a single-faceted, and purely monetary issue is problematic. There are intangible elements that must also be addressed.

One solution that is “tantamount to less inequality” as universal voting rights and democracy lies in education. In his book, “The Haves and the Have-Nots”, Branko Milanovich underlines, using a very simple model, how education is crucial to breaking the poverty cycle:

In the early stages of development, physical capital is scarce. But as the economy develops, physical capital becomes less scarce, and relative to it, human capital (i.e. education) becomes more valuable. But if the spread of education is constrained because the talented children of the poor cannot pay for education, the growth rate will sputter. Thus, even without the introduction of universal voting right and democracy, we reach a similar conclusion: Education must be widespread, and widespread education is tantamount to less inequality.

There is no easy fix. I hope that we can all acknowledge that the statistics we see in the news are not just numbers. Personally, I feel like I have been programmed to just read the headlines and then dismiss them as soon as I’m done reading the news story. A starting point would, then, lie in empathy. As Dr. Brené Brown explains in this video, “Empathy fuels connection, sympathy drives disconnection. The truth is, rarely can a response make something better, what makes something better is connection.” With thousands of kids like Lily around us, my resolution this New Year is to be a little more empathetic and a little less sympathetic.

Notes:

Lily’s story taken from: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/nov/17/growing-up-in-poverty-bronx-new-york

Milanović, Branko. The Haves and the Have-Nots: A Brief and Idiosyncratic History of Global Inequality. New York: Basic, 2011. Print.

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