07/09/2014 04:34 pm ET Updated Sep 08, 2014

Charities and Conservatives' 'Compassion Gap'

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Whatever little remained of the "compassionate conservatism" championed by George W. Bush has long since evaporated under the heat of Republican extremism. Today, more than three-quarters of American conservatives think the poor "have it easy," while fewer than 10 percent believe the "poor have hard lives" and receive inadequate assistance according to a recent two-part study by the Pew Research Center.

Conservatives told pollsters they believe that the poor have easy lives because "they get government benefits without doing anything," speaking with an ignorance not only of the severe limits of government aid, but also of the burdens the poor face in obtaining food stamps, Medicaid, day care, public housing, and other kinds of government assistance. In fact, more than 80 percent of conservatives also say that the government programs on which the poor so desperately depend do more harm than good.

Can about 80 percent of conservatives really be so hard-hearted and insensate that they cannot imagine how profoundly difficult life is for people without enough money to feed their children, fill an essential prescription for an ill parent, or access a safe place to leave an infant while they try to find even a part-time, no-benefits, minimum-wage job before returning home to a slum- and crime-ridden neighborhood? "Have it easy?" Really?

That is consistent in that more than half of conservatives believe that people are poor because of "lack of effort," while fewer than 30 percent of conservatives believe poverty results from "circumstances beyond [an individual's] control." Despite all we have learned over the years about the causes of poverty and related ills, conservatives seem bound and determined to reduce the issue to the simple fact of people making bad decisions and doing bad things.

This kind of thinking, that kind of ideology, ought to be greeted with dismay by most charities even if their missions address problems other than poverty. Blaming the victim does not bode well for nonprofit effort.

Most problems of concern to charities are the result of major shortcomings in the economy and in society's institutions. There is no fully appropriate path forward if people are seen as the principal source of their own grief. Putting the onus on those who suffer is not only uncharitable, but it also undermines public willingness to support government programs and philanthropic efforts.

To help charities fight misconceptions about the poor, let's look at some critical facts: Poverty in the U.S. is higher today than at any time since the 1960s, and includes more than 50 million people. Close to one in four American children live in poverty, the second highest rate of 35 economically advanced nations according to the United Nations. And that figure jumps to more than one of every two children if we include those living in "low-income" families of up to twice the poverty line.

Is poverty the fault of these children? Folks on the right don't seem to care, with close to 90 percent of conservatives asserting that "everyone has it in their own power to succeed." Never mind that research has shown that people who grew up in poverty are much more likely to be poor as adults, and to have children who grow up to be poor.

And although most of us also know that race still matters in America, over 80 percent of conservatives say the "Blacks who can't get ahead are responsible for their own condition." Again -- really?

Rather than blaming the victim, faulting cultural factors or genetics as would many conservatives, science reveals through neurological and other studies that it is the very condition of living in poverty that reproduces it - as well, of course, as external economic forces and malfunctioning institutions.

But conservatives tend to ignore scientific findings that contradict their ideology. For instance, 46 percent of Republicans say that global warming is "just not happening," and over 70 percent of serious conservatives say the we have already "gone too far to protect environment." They hold to that position in spite of the fact that 99.9 percent of climate scientists say that it is very real and increasingly dangerous. According to another recent study, people "resist factual information that threatens their defining values."

Beyond poverty-focused and environmental charities, such obstinate ideologically-driven blindness ought to matter to the entire charitable and philanthropic sector. Those who want to build a better world depend on the public's and policymakers' willingness to see truth and to operate with compassion even when they don't.

There's too little of either among today's conservatives.

This problem grows: "Republicans and Democrats are more divided along ideological lines - and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive - than at any point in the last two decades." Republicans are significantly more likely than Democrats to see those with opposing views as a "threat to the nation's well-being."

This poses a real challenge to charities seeking to improve the way our society operates in service both to the neediest and to the rest of us, as well as to the planet. And we're not doing too well in those philanthropic efforts.

Sadly, that well-being is suffering. According to the Social Progress Imperative, a relatively new initiative that measures multiple dimensions of social progress and human well-being in over 100 countries, the U.S. doesn't even rank in the top ten overall (we're sixteenth), and ranks a disappointing twenty-third in the category of Basic Human Needs (nutrition, basic health care, shelter, etc.) and a dismal thirty-sixth in the category of Foundations of Well-Being (school enrollment, phone/internet access, life expectancy, ecosystem health, etc.) in spite of doing a lot better than other countries in protecting the rights, freedoms, choice and other opportunities available to many US citizens.

America needs to do a lot to make progress and that requires both nonprofit and government activity. Although about 80 percent of those holding strongly conservative views think regulations do more harm than good, it should be clear to the majority of Americans that our people, communities and planet need additional safeguards from those who favor private interests over the public good. The "mediating institutions--voluntary associations, local government, church [sic], and, above all, the family" so valued by conservatives do not alone have the power to solve the extensive problems we face as a nation.

The good news is that beyond those with extreme and polarizing ideology, there is a large center of about 40 percent of Americans who can be enlisted by charities to help make social progress. Although that percentage has shrunk by about a fifth in the last two decades, it is to them that nonprofits must speak.

Charities and foundations need to go beyond service provision and enlist larger numbers of Americans free of ideological myopia to support programs and policies that will remediate the problems that bedevil the nation. That requires helping people to become more engaged civically and in democratic life.

We know that those on the extremes are more likely to vote and to be involved in political processes. Ideology and polarization can be mitigated only by activating those now in the middle. Unless charities and foundations turn to that task, the causes, communities and people they serve will continue to suffer as public discourse, decision-making and action move further away from truth and compassion.

Versions of this piece also appear in The Chronicle of Philanthropy and PhilanTopic.