Does America Have an 'Empathy Deficit'?

Presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) says the United States isn't suffering from a budget deficit, but an "empathy" deficit.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick.

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BRAND: First, though, in many of his speeches, presidential candidate Barack Obama says some variation on the following: you know, a lot of people talk about the federal deficit. Well, let's have Senator Obama take it from there.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): I think we should talk more about another deficit, what I call the empathy deficit.

BRAND: That line is usually good for a few nods of the head. Sometimes, depending on Senator Obama's cadence, it draws applause. But what does he mean by empathy deficit?

NPR's Mike Pesca reports.

MIKE PESCA: When a politician talks about an aspect of the national character, the subtext is always egocentric. If the politician is decrying a habit, he's really saying, and I'm the cure. If he's celebrating a virtue, he's telling us and I have that in spades. You can't always believe them.

But when Barack Obama says - as he did at Northwestern University in that clip we just played - that America doesn't feel enough, he goes halfway to making his case. He's risking being a little touchy feely, which is essentially what he's saying we should all be.

Here he is again last Sunday in Selma, Alabama.

Sen. OBAMA: There's an empathy gap. There's a gap in terms of sympathizing for those folks in New Orleans as bad as sympathizing with folks elsewhere. It's not a gap that the American people felt, because we saw how they responded. But somehow our government didn't respond with that same sense of compassion.

PESCA: Now, not everyone agrees with the senator. Nick Gillespie is the editor of Reason magazine.

Mr. NICK GILLESPIE (Editor, Reason Magazine): According to GivingUSA, in 2004, I think it was, Americans gave something like $250 billion to charity. This is not a country that has a problem seeing itself in other people's shoes. I don't think we have an empathy deficit, whatsoever.

PESCA: Gillespie worries about the consequences of our kindness. He sees wasteful social programs or even foreign entanglements as motivated by Americans feeling sorry for oppressed people.

Robert Egger, who runs the D.C. Central Kitchen and is the author of the book, "Begging for Change", says it's crazy how generous Americans are. But he's quick to point out that donations don't equal empathy.

Mr. ROBERT EGGER (D.C. Central Kitchen; Author, "Begging for Change"): You know, I think for many people they give based more out of the redemption of the giver than the liberation of the receiver.

PESCA: That's private givers. When you add in what the government does, a different picture emerges. According to the Center for Civil Society Studies at Johns Hopkins University, Americans are more generous than most. We volunteer in decent numbers and donate almost 2 percent of our salaries to charity.

But America, the government, spends relatively little on social programs, towards the bottom of the list of Western nations. Another stat: in surveys Americans rate themselves as highly empathetic. Eighty-one percent say they feel protective of someone being taken advantage of. Seventy-four percent say they often have concerned feelings for the less fortunate.

But that's actually sympathy. Acting truly empathetic may be way too scary for a lot of people. Brene Brown has studied emotions and empathy at the University of Houston's school of social work.

Dr. BRENE BROWN (University of Houston School of Social Work): To look at the folks who are struggling - you know, the Katrina survivors - and be with them in their vulnerability, that's more than writing a check.

PESCA: Being with others in their vulnerability means making yourself vulnerable. That's a really hard thing to do, as Dr. Brown describes it. The next part of empathy is even harder: to stay out of judgment.

Dr. BROWN: Judgment is a tough thing in this culture, because we trade in it. It's currency of the realm. Television entertainment is built on it. We love judgment.

PESCA: And what aspect of our culture revels in judgment more than our political culture? After all, an election is a judgment. Yet, being able to identify with others is essential to this democracy. Alexander de Tocqueville recognized this when he studied our fledgling nation all those years ago. In his phrase, habits of the heart were what kept Americans connected, what prevented this very individualistic country from veering into despotism.

So whether it's net in the red or in the black, de Tocqueville would most certainly say that empathy is a vital national resource.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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