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Bernie Sanders Said America Is Not a Compassionate Country. The Numbers Say He's Right.

"No we are not a compassionate society," Sen. Sanders interjected during Tom Price's confirmation hearing on Wednesday as he pointed to the rate of child poverty and to the fact that so many "older workers have nothing set aside for retirement." (Screenshot: C-SPAN)

On Wednesday, Bernie Sanders had his chance to question Tom Price, President-elect Donald Trump's pick to head the Department of Health and Human Services.

Asked if he would work to ensure that every American is guaranteed healthcare as a right, Price responded vaguely that America is "a compassionate society."

Sanders interrupted without hesitation.

"No we are not a compassionate society," Sanders said, pointing to the rate of child poverty and to the fact that so many "older workers have nothing set aside for retirement."

("At a time when half of all older workers have no retirement savings, we need to expand, not cut, Social Security benefits so that every American can retire with dignity," Sanders said in 2015.)

Sanders's insistence that healthcare should be considered a right and not a privilege has always raised Republican hackles. In one rather memorable instance, Rand Paul argued that Sanders's support for guaranteed universal healthcare is tantamount to support for slavery.

Predictably, Paul once again went on the attack on Wednesday. Without mentioning Sanders explicitly, Paul chided those who "extol the virtues of socialism" and implied that Sanders's vision of a compassionate society would turn the United States into Venezuela.


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"We're an incredibly compassionate society," Paul argued, citing the fact that Americans give a great deal of money to charity.

Of course, Paul's rebuttal was little more than a red herring; Sanders was not arguing that Americans, individually, are not compassionate. Rather, he was arguing that our institutions—along with the political and economic ideas and norms that shape them—function in ways that prevent the realization of such goals as the eradication of child poverty and the establishment of universal healthcare. And all the while, the richest get richer.

Paul's attempt to divert attention away from systemic ills by pointing to charitable giving was hardly original, or interesting—look, he says, capitalism can do some good in the world; the "malefactors of great wealth" are, in fact, capable of sharing the spoils. 

But as Patrick Stall has noted, "charity," even when joined with the most altruistic of intentions, "salves a wound it fundamentally cannot heal."

"If we have the generosity to give a stranger a hot meal or a bed for the night," Stall concludes, "we must also have the courage to ask why they were hungry and homeless in the first place."

Why is it that "child poverty in the U.S. is among the worst in the developed world"? Why is it that life expectancy in the wealthiest nation on the planet is falling? Why is it, furthermore, that while 48 million Americans go hungry, major corporations are boasting record profits and CEOs are taking home record pay? Why, finally, do eight men — six of whom are Americans — own as much wealth as half of humanity?

Sanders is seeking the answers; Paul is dismissing the questions.

What is clear, in any case: A country characterized by both obscene wealth and horrific child poverty cannot, with any honesty, be deemed compassionate.

Jake Johnson, staff writer

Jake Johnson

Jake Johnson is a staff writer for Common Dreams. Follow him on Twitter: @johnsonjakep

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