American Attitudes

Compassionate Community or You’re On Your Own?

I believe there are two fundamentally opposing attitudes that are most responsible for shaping the current political discourse.

One attitude, which I’ll call the You’re On Your Own Attitude:
In America you need to figure it out on your own. No one owes you anything. You need to work harder and earn it. If you are poor, tough luck.

The other attitude, I’ll call the Compassionate Community Attitude:
We have a moral responsibility as a society to help people and take care of people, providing them basic human rights and standard of living.

Now, people may believe variants of these ideas, but it seems that this split is very informative as a backdrop to understand debates on key political issues.

There’s also a curious matrix here of these attitudes, because there are well-off people and poorer people in both camps.

Well-Off and Want to Help
There are many people who are well-off and want to help, taking the Compassionate Community Attitude. These are people who have been helped by the system or of have been successful in the system and see it as a moral obligation to create a humane society, and that they have a responsibility to help out people who are being failed by the system. Poverty, hunger, homelessness, lack of opportunity, and lack of health care are problems that we wouldn’t want our friends or family to have, so we should want to do the same for people in our society. This is the archetype of many liberals, as well as many Bernie Sanders supporters.

Well-Off and Don’t Want to Help
There are many people who are well-off and don’t want to help, taking the You’re On Your Own Attitude. This manifests itself in several forms. One is opposing a welfare state of any kind with the attitude that “I don’t want my money going to help those other people who are lazy.” There is an idea that if you are well-off, it is because you earned it, and other people who are not as well-off should have worked harder or acted differently to earn it themselves. I think this view is fundamentally erroneous because it ignores the facts of history, structural inequality, racism, and poverty. This view implicitly takes as a presupposition that there is equality of opportunity, or if not that, enough to absolve you of any duty to help out other people. Additionally it often ignores the ways in which you have been helped.

I know people who believe this view: that it was their unique combination of hard work, skills, education and grit that got them where they are and they have no responsibility to people on the bottom-most rungs of society. This is generally a wealthy Republican attitude — that there should not be a safety net. People may not like the view characterized this way, but ultimately a belief on certain social policies is an extension of how you believe society should be treating people.

Not Well-Off and Want to Help People
There are people who are not well-off but believe in a society that helps people, whether it is themselves or others. People in this group are in the middle class or lower class but think that society should be set up to take care of people on a basic level, along the Compassionate Community Attitude.

Not Well-Off and Don’t Want to Help People
This is a fascinating mix of viewpoints, articulated and referenced in the book What’s the Matter With Kansas?. Part of the idea is that there are people who are voting against their own economic self-interest. These are people or communities who have benefitted from the social safety net, yet don’t believe that it should exist or be offered to others. There’s a twist of this idea in the New York Times article Who Turned my Blue State Red?, extending this idea, but also arguing that it’s not that people are voting against their own self-interest, rather it is that they aren’t voting at all. This article shows that many people in the second lowest quintile (working class or lower-middle class) still don’t want to help the people below them because of ideas of entitlement. This group may be lower class but still believes the You’re on Your Own Attitude.

The Attitudes in the Wild

I’ve described what I see to be four abstract versions of two core attitudes among two different groups. But now I’ll show you what this looks like in the wild.

This dichotomy of attitudes is stark if you read the comments section of this article by a minimum wage worker writing about how company treats them. You should read the comments section to really see these attitudes at play. The facts of the situation are that she works at a food delivery app yet doesn’t have enough money for food and other basics. I’m inclined to believe we should have a society that helps people in these situations.

Those with the You’re On Your Own Attitude call her entitled for complaining, ungrateful, whiny, saying she should be lucky that she has a job or health care, telling her about how hard they had it, or saying it is embarrassing or pathetic to be asking for help. People with this attitude have written things like “This may come of as though I don’t sympathize with your situation at all and that is because I don’t.”

Now read these comments and you will see both the well-off people and not as well-off who hold the You’re on Your Own Attitude. There are some who have low-paying jobs who believe that because it’s tough for them it should be tough for her, that any writing like this is entitled. Some people who say they have been in her situation but now have a good job do not offer sympathy, even though it would not hurt them. They take the viewpoint that she is responsible through poor decision-making. This epitomizes the You’re on Your Own Attitude.

There are people with the Compassionate Community Attitude who instead offer a different sentiment. They praise her for speaking the truth about terrible pay and working conditions. They offer to help her through a contribution. They may not agree with her spending or decisions, but offer helpful and compassionate advice about how to improve. There are people who generously offer to help.

Do you see the difference?

Now come along and read this blurb from a New York Times article.

In a lengthy conversation, Ms. Dougherty talked candidly about how she had benefited from government support. After having her first child as a teenager, marrying young and divorcing, Ms. Dougherty had faced bleak prospects. But she had gotten safety-net support — most crucially, taxpayer-funded tuition breaks to attend community college, where she’d earned her nursing degree.
She landed a steady job at a nearby dialysis center and remarried. But this didn’t make her a lasting supporter of safety-net programs like those that helped her. Instead, Ms. Dougherty had become a staunch opponent of them. She was reacting, she said, against the sense of entitlement she saw on display at the dialysis center.

She doesn’t want policies that help people even though she benefitted from them herself. It’s a reflection of the You’re On Your Own Attitude, that people don’t want to see people who could be working taking advantage of the system. What’s a bit harder to see is what her current-day views would have said to her younger self. She would have said things like: that was your choice to marry young and be divorced, you should have worked harder, you aren’t entitled to free tuition. We need the empathy to see this situation in others.


Now go and read this letter where a San Francisco person complains about the homeless problem, writing:

The wealthy working people have earned their right to live in the city. They went out, got an education, work hard, and earned it. I shouldn’t have to worry about being accosted. I shouldn’t have to see the pain, struggle, and despair of homeless people to and from my way to work every day.”

Now again, this is the well-off person taking the You’re On Your Own Attitude with classic markers. He is disparaging those below him in significantly worse situations — here the homeless. This person believes that he “earned it,” clearly not understanding the situation of many Americans or issues around poverty and mental illness. I think the greatest misconception of wealthy people with the You’re On Your Own Attitude is the “Earned It Fallacy.”


If you are looking down at the people who are worse-off than you for the source of our problems, you are missing the real story. It’s tempting — and common — for people to do this. “The fault lies with poor people on welfare, the homeless, immigrants. The crime is the entitled minimum wage worker.” But this is deeply incorrect. The minimum wage worker is at fault for complaining about being hungry? Nope. If someone can make $1 billion a year, we should be able to provide basic minimum living standards to people in our country. That’s the right thing to do.

It’s an American Attitude to believe that You’re On Your Own, that you need to be tough, work hard, and just look out for yourself. Sadly, it’s a bad idea, and there are many, many Americans who have a different attitude, one about Compassionate Community, with the type of society we should have.

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