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The Empathy Gap
An Essay by Matt Miller

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Oct. 5, 2001 -- There's no question massive federal aid is essential. Thousands of Americans in a vital industry have had their lives and fortunes shattered. Yet I can't help wondering why we so unhesitatingly want government to ease the pain in this event, but not in other situations in which a larger number of Americans also suffer through no fault of their own.

Two examples: Ten million urban children languish in failing schools that we know will blight their lives. These kids had nothing to do with creating the system in which they're being educated. Also, millions of Americans barely survive on poverty level wages, despite working full time. Long-term trends favoring those with greater skills have turned the labor market against these workers with a vengeance.

" If this empathy gap can be articulated and harnessed at the right moment, we might yet put today's remarkable esprit in the service of building a more perfect union for everyone -- and for the long term."

Matt Miller

The reasons for our different responses to these situations may seem obvious to you, but they're not to me. Start with what's different. Americans paid a huge price. We have an obligation to aid fellow citizens who are horribly victimized. What's more, the airline industry is essential to the economy. The risk to a transport system that benefits all of us cannot be tolerated.

All this is true, I know, but it doesn't seem, to me, to fully account for why we instinctively urge massive government action in the face of today's misfortune, while remaining basically indifferent to other ongoing misfortunes.

The answer, I think, has to involve some of the following: That most of us think that when it comes to poor kids or unskilled workers, the victims themselves could, and thus should, have improved their situation by behaving differently, that we're less sure how to fix these problems and that poor children and workers benefits from no nationally galvanizing event.

If I'm right, the source of our different response comes down to an empathy gap. In the terror attacks, we all had the sense that, "There but for the grace of God, go I." With the slow-motion plagues that face poor school kids and workers, we can't muster that empathy, or at least not consistently or intensively enough to do anything serious about it.

Somewhere in this chasm, between our rush to use and even expand government to repair today's big crisis and our reluctance to use it to repair large, but less visible ones, lies the seed of a new conception of American ideals. If this empathy gap can be articulated and harnessed at the right moment, we might yet put today's remarkable esprit in the service of building a more perfect union for everyone -- and for the long term.

Matt Miller is a syndicated columnist and a senior fellow at Occidental College in Los Angeles.