I was driving back home from Detroit last week after a day at the Tigers game. Sitting in the back seat with a car full of friends, I looked out the window at the houses that lined Grand Avenue just south of Interstate 94 and thought to myself how incredibly lucky I am to not live in such poverty. House after house was vandalized, abandoned, boarded up, burnt down — you name it. I feel lucky because I will graduate from an excellent university, most likely earn a decent salary, fulfill many of my dreams and not have to constantly worry about crime in my neighborhood. I will probably never go hungry or be concerned about living without health care, but the same cannot be said for many people in this country.

I turned to my friend sitting beside me in the car and mentioned these thoughts. She agreed and also feels lucky that she has been able to grow up comfortably, both of us realizing that poverty severely limits many opportunities for success. This friend is the same person who I had a discussion with about income inequality in America just a week earlier. I had just finished my political philosophy paper on the moral justifications of income transfers from the rich to the poor. I’ll spare you the details of the argument, but I asked her, “Why does a man deserve to be poor just because he is unlucky enough to be born into poverty?” Considering the question, she told me that it may be unfortunate that he is unlucky and poor, but that’s the way it is.

Did a week change her views of poverty in America? Absolutely not. Rather, it was her small glimpse of poverty passing through Detroit. Talking with residents or actually living there may have enhanced her experience, but just taking in the view as we passed by was enough to influence her attitude toward poverty.

Every day there are political debates about welfare, health care, illegal immigration and the wars overseas. But the people debating the issues are stuck in the world of politics and theoretical policy. Republican members of Congress fight every word of welfare legislation, but would they think differently if they experienced poverty? My guess is yes. With the Sparknotes for Adam Smith in hand, they religiously praise the free market and small government. But if these people actually lived in the poverty they refuse to help alleviate, they would realize that the free market often fails to benefit everyone and leaves many in unfortunate situations. They would see that the poor are not poor because they are lazy or stupid, but often times because they were not given an equal chance to succeed. They would realize that the poor are people, not a special interest group that wishes to destroy capitalism.

This idea must be applied to more than just welfare. How can politicians argue about war when they have never experienced it firsthand? How can they debate illegal immigration when they have never met an immigrant and listened to their story? The fact is, politicians must expand their experiences in order to make good and informed decisions and not just rely on what their rationality tells them. This should not just apply to our Congressmen, but to all who have an opinion. It is not enough to read newspapers or listen to punditry on television to make an opinion. There is no way to form a complete understanding of anything simply from hearing others speak about it. You must change your perspective and enter into real experiences in order to develop fair opinions of others and their desires.

I am not espousing that we become communists or allow an open door policy for all immigrants, but learning from individuals and their experiences can assist our policymakers in making truly representative and effective decisions. Let’s not be afraid to separate from cold logic and move closer to the warmth of compassion for others. We ought to reevaluate the conventional wisdom about economics, politics and people in order to improve our understanding of the important decisions we make in the future.

Max Levenstein can be reached at medl@umich.edu.

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