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Compassion Gap

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Compassion can be described as concern or empathy for those who suffer from misfortunes.[1] The idea of compassion is ingrained in society, as many religious teachings place compassion at the center of their belief system. Furthermore, the importance of compassion is seen in educational, healthcare, and judicial systems.[2] [3] However, despite the intrinsic nature of compassion in society, a phenomenon called the "compassion gap" occurs. The "compassion gap," coined by Block et al., is described as a deep divide between the compassion people believe they have and how they exemplify their compassion.[4] The compassion gap can be seen in various situations and can have many consequences.

Compassion Gap in Poverty[edit]

Block et al. examined the compassion gap in poverty in his research and discussed how society recognizes the moral obligation to offer aid to those who are in need. A survey conducted by Philanthropy Roundtable examined 1,000 American's philanthropic opinions. The study used random selection and a dynamic weighting program which was used to ensure that the respondents represented the overall United States population in regards of sex, race, political preference, religion, family structure, education, income, and age. The survey consisted of 15 questions and respondents had to answer closed-ended questions. Their research concluded that a vast majority of Americans (86%) believe that it is important to donate money to those in need.[5] However, Block et al. note that the United States' total spending on welfare programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) has significantly decreased despite poverty rising.[6][7] Furthermore, in the same study conducted by the Philanthropy Roundtable, the research found that the proportion of charitable donations to all national production (GPD) has relatively stayed the same (2%) for the last 60 years despite the country becoming wealthier. Using data from 10 different public opinions polls regarding Americans’ opinions on welfare programs, a researcher found that the majority of Americans said they wanted to support social welfare programs, but when asked if we should increase welfare spending via taxes, they strongly disagreed. In fact, 63% of respondents believed that welfare spending should be decreased and 71% said that spending for people on welfare should also be decreased.[8] Furthermore, Block et al. believe those in poverty are often stigmatized as many believe they are there because of their own misfortunes. This divide between one's moral obligations and how they treat those in poverty is called the compassion gap.


Block et al. cite that the compassion gap can result from two dynamics. First, Block et al. believed that powerful groups, like politicians, maintain the idea that helping those in poverty will cause them harm because it will make them dependent or "lazy" .[9] This notion could be seen as early as the 1930s when Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted the Works Progress Administration (WPA) as a way to help job-seekers carry out public works projects.[10] The public derided WPA workers as lazy, and the program was nicknamed "We Putter Around". [11] Thus, according to Block et al., this overall negative perception about those living in poverty persuades people to be less supportive of welfare programs, resulting in less spending in these programs.[4]

As cited by Block et al., the second cause of the compassion gap is the perception that those in poverty are poor is because of their personal qualities. Through public opinion polls, researchers found that most people believe that people are poor due to their personal failings.[12] Furthermore, results from a meta-analysis found that 51% of Americans cited "lack of will" as one of the reasons for why people are poor and nearly 75% of Americans believed that "loose morals and drunkenness" as another cause for poverty.[13] This meta-analysis had almost 3,000 American respondents which were collected through probability sampling and used interviewers who all had different scripts, probes and policies that allowed them the freedom to interact with the respondent. Data obtained from 1,984 in-home interviews from two cities in California showed that people only supported individuals receiving welfare if they were believed to be “worthy”.[14] These perceived notions can be attributed to the fundamental attribution error, past experiences, or to the long history of meritocracy in the United States.[15] Attribution studies found that levels of access to opportunity, wealth, and success positively correlates with the extent of blaming those in poverty. From a study that consisted of 80 respondents answering a questionnaire, researchers found that people from the Philippines, a developing country, blamed those in poverty for the actions less than people from Canada, a wealthier country.[16] Furthermore, the association between poverty and crime is highly publicized, with many research studies citing a positive correlation with poverty rate and crime rates.[17] Therefore, due to these negative stigmas, people may feel less compassionate. When people feel less compassionate and less understanding of one's situation, they may be less inclined to help them. As welfare assistance becomes unsubstantial, those in poverty can no longer subsist by following the law and may turn to crimes to survive. These crimes are then used as proof by the public that those in poverty are intractable, fueling the idea that they are unworthy of help, causing a self-fulfilling prophecy [4]

The compassion gap does not mean that people are incapable of feeling compassion for others, it just means that people may have a difficult time empathizing with those who they feel are at fault for their misfortunes or feel that if they did help, it would actually cause more harm than good. By believing that those in poverty are responsible for their own misfortunes it absolves others from taking responsibility to help those in need. However, people may not realize that these negative stigmas and the lack of compassion may actually perpetuate the cycle of poverty.[4]


  1. "Merriam-Webster".
  2. Strauss, C (2016). "What is compassion and how can we measure it? A review of definitions and measures". Clinical Psychology Review. 47: 15–27. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2016.05.004.
  3. Norko, A. (2005). "Commentary: Compassion at the Core of Forensic Ethics". Journal of the American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law. 33: 386–389.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 Block; Woodward; Schiller; Mazid (2006). "The Compassion Gap in American Poverty Policy". The American Sociological Association. 5: 14–22.
  5. "Original 2015 National Poll".
  6. "Policy Brief: TANF Reaching Few Poor Families".
  7. "Chart Book: SNAP Helps Struggling Families Put Food on the Table".
  8. Gilens, M (1999). Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 9780226293653. Search this book on
  9. Banerjee; Hanna; Kreindler; Olken. "Debunking the stereotype of the lazy welfare recipient: Evidence from Cash Transfer Programs". Oxford University Press. 32: 155–184.
  10. Arnesen, Eric (2006). Encyclopedia of U.S. Labor and Working-Class History. New York City, New York: Routledge. ISBN 978-0415968263. Search this book on
  11. Taylor, David (2009). Soul of a People: The WPA Writers' Project Uncovers Depression America. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. ISBN 978-0470403808. Search this book on
  12. Bradshaw, T. 2007. Theories of Poverty and Anti-Poverty Programs in Community Development. Community Development, 38, 7-25, DOI: 10.1080/15575330709490182
  13. Morton, L. S. (2014). The Stigmatization of Poverty in America: A Look at International Public  Perceptions of the Poor (Unpublished master's thesis). Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.
  14. Ogren, E. 1973. Public opinions about public welfare. Social Work, 18, 101–107,
  15. Ige, K.D.; Nekhwevha, F.H. (November 2012). "Poverty Attribution in the Developing World: A Critical Discussion on Aspects of Split Consciousness among Low Income Urban Slum Dwellers in Lagos". Journal of Social Sciences. 33 (2): 213–226. doi:10.1080/09718923.2012.11893100. ISSN 0971-8923.
  16. Hine; Montiel (1999). "Poverty in developing nations: a cross‐cultural attributional analysis". European Journal of Social Psychology. 29: 943–959.
  17. Sharkey, P., Besbris, M., & Friedson, B. 2016. Poverty and Crime. Oxford Handbook Online Press. doi:10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199914050.013.28.

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