There’s something so visceral about how we turn away from people who are not as well off as we are. We make all kinds of excuses for why we have a superiority complex, citing a lack of work ethic in the other party or worse, inherent intellectual advantage. But if I believed that I wouldn’t be getting intense waves of guilt each time I choose not to look at someone who is asking for change. What’s wrong with people? How come, even when I know that I want to do everything I can to help the world be a better place, I’m still subject to this kind of complicit behavior? Does it make me a hypocrite? I tell myself that I’ll pay it back someday when I’m well off as a sort of reassurance. But what if I’m never well off? Would I keep pushing it off forever?
It’s easy to blame things on a system that keeps the poor in poverty or on personal circumstance, thus pushing someone else’s condition off of my own plate. But ultimately the root causes of this negligence stem mostly from our own psyche. First, altruism is programmed because we expect reciprocity. As social beings, we are kind and generous to each other as an investment in ourselves– surely someone we’ve helped will be able to give back to us in the future. However, if you’re unlikely to ever encounter the person again or have no reason to believe they will have the means to give back to you, instinct tells you to leave them in the dust and let them fend for themselves. I’ve always firmly believed in the benevolence of people and their inherent goodness, so this is a very daunting reality for me to come to terms with.
Second, consider the trolley problem. Would you pull a lever to kill one person while saving five? Or would you let the five die because it’s none of your business? The core question here is one of responsibility: I had nothing to do with it in the first place, and so I will have nothing to do with it now. This is the argument that many people who choose not to interfere give to justify their counterintuitive response. Technically, it’s better to just let the five die due to factors out of your control instead of being responsible for the death of the one, as awful as that sounds. We don’t like to be arbiters of life and death– that’s why we have God to take the blame off our shoulders. Somehow, by helping out this person who is asking me for money or for food, I am now entangling myself in their ultimate success or demise. The thinking goes, “in case of the worst, best not to get involved in the first place.”
People have constructed entire bubbles of privilege to distract themselves from the reality of an economically diverse world. Hospitals, for example, are a place of safety and refuge for those who have the money to afford patient care. They stand as institutions of privilege and, most importantly, privacy. We want to maintain a front that only the best care is being given, and so we pick and choose who we can give care to in order to maintain the best image. Take one of the opening scenes from Marvel’s Doctor Strange. Stephen Strange, world famous neurosurgeon, is driving along and perusing possible cases to take. Instead of focusing primarily on saving lives, he is fixated on what will improve his name, avoiding patients with injuries that are too “risky”. While public hospitals and clinics do not have this kind of privilege due to their nature of being public, often they lack funding or the facilities that private hospitals do. This is even more true when it comes to education. Public schools, private schools, inner city vs. suburban, all provide different levels of schooling. For a hefty price, parents can invest in their children’s futures and immerse them in a world where everyone is as privileged as they are. This isn’t just paying for a private school education– even choosing where to live and settle down has major implications. Why don’t we let kids look at people asking for change? To preserve the bubble. Why do we ignore those around us who don’t behave the way we think “civilized” people do? To preserve the bubble. Everything is about preserving the version of reality that we’ve constructed, where we are the victors and anyone who is not as well off as we are have simply lost the game.
What do we do, then? Particularly with a shrinking world and a growing wealth gap, with hard evidence showing that there is an indisputable link between low socioeconomic status and slower development, how do we commit to breaking a vicious cycle before it’s too late? More pertinently, should we be more open with our money and be giving? That’s a matter of personal belief and values, but regardless of what you choose to do, we can’t continue to believe in a world where we are the “winners” and others are the losers. Investments in societal health are also investments in ourselves and our communities. We need to give each other the chance to become productive, to succeed and contribute in their own ways, and that starts with being able to acknowledge their existence. We can also try to build institutions that break down as opposed to building walls. Just as the Tripod program in the Deaf community seeks to educate both deaf and hearing children together in a bicultural (English and sign) environment, educational and medical facilities that are just as open and diverse should be made available. This isn’t easy– when people have the means, they will tend to opt for private schools or hospitals because they expect better service. Institutions also have a tendency to become more privileged as they become more selective. A public school that provides a great education with great resources will probably only get more wealthy as space runs out, since at that point name value will incentivize them to pluck the students who are best posed to succeed as opposed to those who stand to gain the most.
I’ve given a lot of thought to how to solve this problem. One solution is to embed the purpose of the school or the service-program in the constitution. That way there is a clear mission statement that compels the administration to adhere to a set of values in patient, subject, or student care and selection. Another possibility is to specifically target areas of low privilege and provide the means necessary to help those people access these facilities. For example, a school for inner city children that provides free transportation or reduced-cost lunches, or psychiatric facilities in rural areas // through online mediums that would allow for anonymity particularly in small towns. Regardless of the means, the through line is effort and community building. If you are acknowledging your privilege and stepping beyond the bubble, you are doing a good thing.
Of course, any of these ideas heavily depend on a financial backer with a large if not unlimited pool of resources at hand and ready to dish out to the cause. The government is unlikely to make such investments, since politicians too live in an even smaller bubble of privilege. But that isn’t to discourage any and all efforts to make the world a better place for more people! We each have a means of communication, and if nothing else, we can spread a message or lend an ear. You can’t give up before the game has even started!
So to recap, I’m going to do my best to be more considerate and immerse myself in the reality of socioeconomic diversity. I might not always have change to give, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing I can do. Giving back comes in many forms, not the least of which is the pledge to start or maintain institutions that offer services to the underprivileged and give back to a community. I might not expect reciprocity, but on net, it’s a tiny cost in exchange for huge potential gain.