In a recent column about empathy, Nick Kristof responded to terrible critics of his call for people to take care of one another:
A reader named Keith reflected a coruscating chorus when he protested: “If kids are going hungry, it is because of the parents not upholding their responsibilities.”
After a recent column about an uninsured man who delayed seeing a doctor about a condition that turned out to be colon cancer, many readers noted that he is a lifelong smoker and said he had it coming.
“What kind of a lame brain doofus is this guy?” one reader asked. “And like it’s our fault that he couldn’t afford to have himself checked out?
This isn’t new. People who don’t want to help each other and don’t feel like they have to really like to blame others for their circumstances. But then Kristof kind of allows it, in defense of the children:
Let’s acknowledge one point made by these modern social Darwinists: It’s true that some people in poverty do suffer in part because of irresponsible behavior, from abuse of narcotics to criminality to laziness at school or jobs. But remember also that many of today’s poor are small children who have done nothing wrong.
Some 45 percent of food stamp recipients are children, for example. Do we really think that kids should go hungry if they have criminal parents? Should a little boy not get a curved spine treated properly because his dad is a deadbeat? Should a girl not be able to go to preschool because her mom is an alcoholic?
He takes it as a given that some adults are to blame for their bad decisions, and chooses to guilt-trip the assholes by pointing to the children that are the innocent victims of their parents’ choices. Nevermind that A. poor adults make the same kinds of bad decisions as middle class and rich adults, they just don’t have a personal safety net, and B. adults who need help deserve it – no matter what the reason, just like children.
When rich and even middle-class, especially white, people enjoy privileges that are invisible to them but incredibly apparent to everyone else, it demands that everyone else receive the help that they deserve. In my city, if you’re caught doing drugs in one part of town you’ll probably get a reprimand, maybe get sent to rehab, if you get caught on the other side of town you’ll probably meet the carceral state up close. Being injured or sick when you’re rich is still a terrible thing to be, but at least you can get treatment while the uninsured are merely kept alive. Missing in all of this is that the middle-class and rich get government help all of the time: income tax credits, quality education for their children, well-maintained highways – things that are meant for everybody but really don’t benefit those who don’t have much of an income, who send their children to under-funded schools due to property tax inequity, who take the bus for an hour to work. A proper safety net is the only way to help these people, and that’s what we should be doing.