Mark Kennedy Shriver, Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at Save the Children, published a letter in the New York Times of December 18th, 2013, inviting readers to a dialogue about children and poverty. Mr. Shriver’s personal frustration was apparent in his excellent article, decrying the potential dismantling of federal programs supporting early childhood development.
I would recommend to Mr. Shriver and other leaders in the field that we move the frame of discussion beyond science and economics. We must focus on authentic root cause, a dysfunction of the psyche, having to do with deficits in empathy.
In a bitterly polarized world, there is escalating intolerance for views, positions, and ultimately, even the lives of others different from us. Individual, as well as collective, societal benefits of enriching earliest childhood experiences have been repeatedly demonstrated through both impeccable science and economic analyses. Less well understood is how we as a society remain able to reject factual information, vilify potential beneficiaries, and disown predictable consequences, including the inevitable cycle of poverty described by Mr. Shriver.
Failure of empathy seems key to our capacity to tolerate inequity and injustice. And that failure represents dysfunction that must be better recognized and addressed. We must consider how to “teach” empathy to “old brains”, especially those with power and wealth. We need to frame issues in ways that allow others to hear. We need to both cultivate empathy within others, but also to enhance it within ourselves, especially when we confront those with opinions that feel morally repugnant.
Eradication of poverty requires elevation of empathy across all economic classes.