There is a cottage industry of writers and activists in the United States who lecture us about what we should be doing as a nation for unemployed people, but who do nothing on their own to help individual unemployed persons. This long list is headed by several New York Times columnists, particularly Nicholas Kristof.


Kristof’s column this past weekend is the latest example, and worth briefly commenting on for what it represents. In Baltimore, Kristof meets a homeless man Andrew Phillips, 28. Phillips tells him that he has been unemployed and homeless for the last eight years. Phillips takes responsibility for his condition; he tells Kristof that he has “made some bad choices”. We also learn from Phillips of his twisted youth: his mother a drug addict, his brother shot dead when he was 3, he himself shot in the head at 5, by eighth grade, dropped out of school.

After hearing this, most people will think, “How did Kristof help him? Did he help him get into the government job training or education services? Did he offer him a few bucks as a show of good faith?”

But it turns out that Kristof is not really interested in Mr. Philips as a person, rather as a vehicle for Kristof’s ideology. We don’t hear anything more about Phillips. Instead the column turns to argue that Phillips’ background shows the role of social forces, and need for government programs. Phillips’ story allegedly shows the need for more programs of Infant home visitation, Career Academics, and mental health outreach. Those who do not want to expand these programs lack compassion. Republicans, like Bill O’Reilly, who emphasize a theme of personal responsibility, do not have different ideas about combating poverty; they are heartless.

Nothing original or insightful in Kristof’s writing. More importantly, why is Kristof lecturing us, instead of doing something? Why doesn’t he step forward to help Phillips? Shouldn’t Kristof and others who tout themselves as so compassionate be called to help needy individuals when they meet them.

Worth magazine editor in chief and thoughtful blogger, Richard Bradley, made a similar point earlier this year about a Kristof column concerning a former high school classmate in Oregon, Kevin Green. Green does not find a place in the job market, goes from low paying job to low paying job, and dies at age 54. Kristof titles his column, “Where’s the Empathy?”, and blames unnamed judgmental Americans who would regard Kevin as a moocher, because he was on disability insurance and food stamps. Kristof declares that America has a fundamental problem in its “empathy gap”.

But as Bradley notes, the only judging is being done by Kristof. He uses Green’s sad life to scold us about our lack of empathy. Yet, with all of the money and influence that Kristof has, it doesn’t seem as if he lifted a hand for Green. Why doesn’t he hold himself accountable?

Kristof is only posturing when it comes to empathy, but he is by no means the only poseur. When was the last time that Robert Reich, another big talker about compassion, actually helped an unemployed person get a job? How many times do you think that Paul Krugman has spent an hour to help a specific homeless person?

Where is Dorothy Day (above) when we need her?