If you only have five minutes today and are reading this column, put it down and look up Robert F. Kennedy’s speech at the University of Kansas on March 18, 1968 instead.
Not only is it one of the most beautiful and soaring works of oratory presented on the national stage in recent memory, but it’s also full of oft-neglected insights about the state of American social life, written during a time of unprecedented turmoil. Kennedy, in a far cry from what our political discourse has looked like recently, talks about the health of our “national soul” and the emotional challenges we encounter in confronting growing poverty and inequality. Why, he asks, does the Gross National Product data look great on paper while there is social instability everywhere?
“Even if we act to erase material poverty,” he notes, “there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction – purpose and dignity – that afflicts us all.”
If this sounds like a bizarre thing to say, consider how far removed our political conversations are from this kind of thinking today. In a discourse largely dominated by a tug-of-war between factions arguing for a little more redistribution or a little less, too little thought is given to the resources beyond money that people need to flourish.
Poverty takes many forms. Its material form is the most obvious and calls for our most immediate attention. But its more deeply rooted form, that of emotional poverty or the “poverty of satisfaction,” is subtler and much harder to get rid of. It can affect the rich and the poor just as harshly, and I have personally seen it both inside and outside Yale’s walls. And to understand poverty in America, we must come to grips with both forms.
When the wealthy suffer from emotional poverty they usually have the resources and the community to either pull themselves of the situation or to find help. But to suffer from both intense emotional and material poverty leaves an individual with next to nothing. Endemic poverty perpetuates itself when people grow up without unconditional love, communities that care, schools that are safe to learn in, bedtime stories and much more.
I was lucky. I grew up in a home with two parents who loved unconditionally. We didn’t have much money. My parents had immigrated from Armenia to New York the year before I was born, and while they were doctors there, it would take more than a decade before they could earn anything remotely close to an American doctor’s salary. So for about the first ten years of my life, we lived in small apartments in Manhattan and my parents worked in pawnshops, at labs running dishwashers and as babysitters. They kept me clothed and fed while studying for exams and climbing their way up. Classic immigrant story. But they also stayed up with me until I finished my homework and took me to the park on weekends. We were a family, and it felt that way every day. Home was a very safe place, where I could feel loved and wanted.
There is no discussion of emotional poverty in today’s political paradigm. It’s just not built into the discourse. When was the last time you heard either political party talk about the poverty of love in their narratives? Traditionally, we have not believed that government is supposed to make people feel loved. But, as Robert Putnam argued in his book Bowling Alone, people are increasingly disassociating from community institutions like churches that have traditionally taken responsibility for emotional wellbeing. Because people don’t have those social resources to turn to, the political rhetoric needs to start grasping these issues.
Both in rich and poor communities, Americans need more than material wealth. In communities with few materials resources, the problems go beyond economic stagnation—issues like physical violence and poor health have roots in emotional problems like vulnerability and loneliness. In wealthy communities like Yale, we may not struggle with lack of material resources, but we do have some of the same emotional hunger. Our insecurity is manifesting itself in our sex culture, in our disturbing lack of inner peace and in our inability to get beyond superficiality in many of our friendships.
With the issue of emotional poverty so widespread, government – an increasingly large source, for better of worse, of social authority – must begin to speak to these problems.
John Aroutiounian is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.