It is difficult to imagine two people as different as Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Trump, born to wealth, taught to repress feelings; Biden, a man of the working class, deeply shaped by misfortune and faith but with the great gift of connecting over shared emotions. We’ve gone from the least empathetic leader in my lifetime to perhaps the most empathetic. In our system of government, the president is both the head of government (the prime minister) and the head of state (the monarch). As head of state, the president represents the nation and has the mission of unifying the country. He represents the nation’s shared values and symbolizes America, along with the flag, the White House and the Capital Dome. Biden routinely speaks of unity and common values; Trump reflexively appealed to his political base alone and saw the nation through red and blue-tinted lenses.
In a presidency that is less than one month old, President Biden has reassured the Dreamers that they would not be abandoned, began the difficult process of welcoming refugees, started to reunite immigrant parents separated from their children, and most importantly, refocused America on the issue of impoverished children. While no one should be “blamed” for a lack of economic success, there is an American ideology that assigns fault for being poor. However, even those who blame adults for being poor spare children from such blame. If poverty is inexplicably defined as failure, even those holding such a ridiculous view see children as innocent victims. When America’s now tattered “safety net” was first put into place, our welfare system was called “Aid to Families with Dependent Children” (AFDC). AFDC was part of the Social Security Act of 1935. In 1997, AFDC was replaced by Temporary Assistance to Needy Families. Again, welfare was focused on children.
Despite this nation’s wealth and the economic boom that was supposedly underway in the pre-COVID Trump economy, the number of hungry children in America has remained unacceptably high in good times and bad. Pre-pandemic, the U.S. Department of Agriculture counted 11 million “food insecure” children. The Children’s Defense Fund counted 12.5 million hungry American children at that time. My colleagues at Columbia’s Center on Poverty and Social Policy published a report this past November on the impact of COVID on American poverty and concluded that:
“In contrast to measures of poverty based on a family’s annual resources, we project monthly poverty rates based on a family’s monthly resources before and throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The monthly poverty rate increased from 15% to 16.7% from February to September 2020, even after taking the CARES Act’s income transfers into account. Increases in monthly poverty rates have been particularly acute for Black and Hispanic individuals, as well as for children. In April and May, the CARES Act was successful in offsetting potential increases in monthly poverty but was not successful at preventing a rise in deep poverty, defined as having monthly income lower than half the monthly poverty threshold.”
The persistence of childhood poverty and the impact of our weakened economy on children has resulted in the reemergence of childhood poverty on America’s political agenda. A recent article by Jim Tankersley and Emily Cochrane in the New York Times reported that:
“The early weeks of the Biden administration have brought a surge of support, in the White House and across party lines in Congress, for what could be the most ambitious effort in a generation to reduce child poverty. The plans vary in duration, design and the amount they would add to the federal debt, but they share a new and central premise in the policy debate over how to help the poor: that sending monthly payments through tax credits to parents, even if they do not earn income from work, is the best way to help feed, clothe and house children from low-income families.”
Senator Mitt Romney has proposed a plan to provide $4,200 per year for every child up to the age of 6, as well as $3,000 per year for every child age 6 to 17. About 20% of American children live in poverty in contrast to 13% of the children in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries. The rate of child poverty is highest (about 40%) in single-parent households. The current economic crisis, and the spread of poverty into families that have never experienced it before has created a wave of sympathy and political support for addressing the issue of childhood hunger and poverty.
All over America, we see an upsurge in direct assistance to those in need from people who have enough resources to help out. From community refrigerators in Brooklyn, to drive-in food pantries in Texas, the fact of hunger in the midst of America’s plenty is calling on all of us to pay more attention to people in need. Just as we saw in the Great Depression, and again during Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, American poverty is at long last stimulating a response in Congress.
The cruelty of the Trump years has been replaced, at least for now, by a renewal in America of the compassion expressed by our empathetic and expressive new president. To Trump, feelings and frailty are a form of weakness. That is why he hid the seriousness of his own fight with COVID-19 and made a show of ripping off his mask and strutting on the Truman Balcony of the White House upon his return from the hospital. Strength and winning were all that mattered. Illness, frailty, business failure and yes, poverty were indicators of personal failure and weakness to be avoided and swept under the rug at all costs.
Our new president lost his wife and a child in a car accident when he was 30 years old and watched an adult son die of brain cancer in 2015. He has dedicated his life to public service. His ability to connect one-on-one is legendary. The contrast to his predecessor is clear and his electoral victory was in large measure a response to his empathy and regard for others when compared to Donald Trump’s cruelty and extreme self-regard. During this time of COVID-induced isolation, illness and loss, we needed a leader able to express and address our pain. Pretending that COVID-19 would soon disappear made little sense to many, in the face of growing numbers of infections, hospitalizations and death. While many voted for Trump’s view of the world, over seven million more voted for Biden’s.
President Biden seems determined to use the COVID-created economic crisis to take a long overdue and non-incremental step that will reduce poverty in America. Similarly, the immigration issue has also festered for decades while over 11 million people have taken their place in American society as our neighbors and friends in what remains, a nation of immigrants. Trump began his campaign for the presidency by riding down the Trump Tower escalator and warning that hordes of criminals were crossing the nation’s borders. His administration promoted cruel immigration policies that separated families at the border and conducted ICE enforcement raids that deported immigrants and caused fear and anxiety in millions of immigrant households. Trade restrictions, new limits on visas for workers and students, xenophobic language (“the China Virus”) and anti-foreign policies were the product of the Trump Administration’s America First philosophy. Biden’s initial efforts at immigration reform have already been labeled “amnesty” and “open borders” by conservatives. But despite their best efforts, the Trump administration could not find and deport the millions of people who settled here illegally, and the courts also prevented him from acting against people who were brought here illegally when they were children. Illegal immigration and hungry children are facts of American life that require action instead of endless symbolic debate.
Trump was willing to exploit anti-immigrant impulses for political gain and rarely expressed any concern for the human impact of his policies. A significant part of Biden’s case for immigration reform will be built on stories about the role played by immigrants in our communities and in our economy, and similar to the issue of child poverty, he will appeal to the sense of compassion and empathy he is able to credibly convey to the nation. Compassion will clearly be a consistent message of his still new presidency. It is a relief to see empathy, compassion and human connection back in the White House. It is a hallmark of the American presidency. In his second inaugural speech, at the end of a bitter and bloody civil war, and about a month before his murder, Abraham Lincoln best expressed the unifying mission of the American President as head of state:
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
Lincoln could empathize with insurrectionists and for their families. Surely, we can now find it in our hearts to help children, dreamers and refugees. Our new president gives me hope we can do just that.
Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.