American Poverty: Why America's Treatment of the Poor Undermines its Authority as a World Power

By Laurel A. Rockefeller

Business, Current affairs, Environment & nature

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4 mins


Problem One: Empathy

Why does the top 1% of all Americans possess 40% of the total wealth in America (source: to just 7% for the bottom 80% of Americans? In part one, we looked at the problem of empathy in America and how in the last thirty years or so our ability to relate to one another has greatly eroded. Without empathy, the ability to relate to one another and see ourselves in the shoes of those we do not know, we find ourselves calloused. A “better him than me” attitude takes over that drives greed and too often creates a defensive, hold onto what I have position by businesses and the wealthy. Before the 1980s, the wealthy and middle class invested in driving the economy through job creation and through paying workers living wages. Investment in growing your business through a prosperous labour pool made and still makes good business sense by professionalizing workers and making them loyal team players.

The price for mistreating workers can be and usually is quite high. When employees are overworked, under paid, and mistreated, they look for work elsewhere—even in deep recessions. In her 30th of August 2013 article, “How Much Employee Turnover Really Costs You,” Suzanne Lucas specifies six key costs to losing and replacing existing workers,
• “Lowered productivity,”
• “Overworked remaining staff,”
• “Lost knowledge,”
• “Training Costs,”
• “Interviewing costs,” and
• “Recruiters.”

Less work gets done anytime a business loses a worker. Potential new hires, as well as customers, easily discover toxic work cultures. Mistreated and underpaid workers are unhappy workers which are in turn passing on their malcontent, even if unconsciously, to customers and clients. This comes through in body language, vocal inflections (stress can be heard), and apathy. If you hate your job, you simply will not do your best for your job. This is perhaps why the lowest paid workers, especially in retail and fast food industries, often offer poor service.

To make things worse, most of the jobs added since the start of the Great Recession in 2008 tend to be in either retail or fast food where work conditions and pay are abysmal. 

As Doctor Dale Archer of Forbes magazine puts it in his 4th of September 2013 article Could America’s Wealth Gap Lead to a Revolt, “For all the employment growth and claims by many that our economy is in recovery, most of those new jobs – six out of ten according to the Labor Department – are on the low end of the pay scale, which is already much lower than other first world countries. Meanwhile, the top executives of the fast food companies at the center of this storm are among the highest paid in the nation.”

High management and executive pay rates demonstrate not only a complete lack of empathy towards the workers without whom the business would not exist, but a complete disregard for their humanity.

So what can we do about all this? How can we bring back empathy, fairness, and improve corporate culture?

One hundred years ago, unions were the solution that brought some of the most important and sweeping employment reforms that most of us take for granted today. From minimum wage to overtime pay to child labour protections, we all work safer because of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, the culmination of over a century of organized labour’s efforts to improve safety standards and work conditions (see to explore the history of labour reform in the United States). Today, the viability of unions and their benefits or detriments to the economy is hotly debated with entrenched points of view on both sides of the question.

But the United States is not the only country where trade unions remain hotly contested. On 31st of July 2013, Alan Travis of “The Guardian” explored Margaret Thatcher’s attitudes and behaviour towards UK trade unions in his article, “National archives: Margaret Thatcher wanted to crush power of trade unions. Downing Street archives reveal Thatcher thought Norman Tebbit's stance on union reform too timid.” (,exploring recently released internal papers from her administration. These papers reveal Baroness Thatcher’s aggressive tactics designed to break trade unions in the United Kingdom, particularly unions protecting mine workers while destroying the connection between the rival Labour Party with organized labour. These policies, along with the resulting March 1984 coal miner’s strike, are perhaps the most enduring legacies of Thatcher’s prime ministry, legacies still polarizing across the United Kingdom today.

So perhaps unions are not the answer they once were to the problem of income inequalities and poverty, their relevance muddied by political in-fighting and gridlock in both the United States and Great Britain.

But connectedness, empathy, this sense that everyone has an equal stake in the success of businesses of all sizes does exist, especially in new and emerging small businesses of two to twenty employees. Dev Patnaik in an article posted by American Express (, “While it's difficult to build a pervasive sense of empathy into a large corporation, it's easy for a company of a few dozen folks to see the world through their customers' eyes. Small business owners are almost always closer to the people they serve than big-corporation CEOs are.”

After citing particular examples from several small business he concludes, “In a troubled economy, where companies of all kinds are looking for new ways to create value, cultivating a sense of empathy is a smart strategy for ensuring long-term viability.”

So empathy makes good business sense. But we are still left with the original problem: once businesses reach a certain size, key decision makers and especially those who set employee wages and benefits become disconnected with workers and customers alike, creating misery and destroying professionalism. How do we change this?

Ultimately the answer is cultural. The reason why The Greatest Generation was so good at driving the economy and providing living wages to workers came out of their shared experiences during the Great Depression; they remembered suffering along with the people around them and they felt an important moral imperative to help everyone out. They helped, not out of charity but out of empathy, because they came from a cultural of connectedness. Technology served to make their lives more connected, as it can for each of us today.

The more we talk with one another, the better we relate to each other, and the more we engage in civil debate with those who disagree with us, come from different national, religious, and/or ethnic backgrounds, the more connected we become.

Learning civility, especially with those different from us, is perhaps the first step towards re-establishing empathy and, by extension, coping with this important aspect to poverty in America.



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