On Wednesday, March 9, at Claremont McKenna College's Athenaeum, Congressman Mark Takona quoted Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird as he talked about poverty, income inequality, and empathy: “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”
Takano—representative for the 41st district of California, which includes Riverside, Moreno Valley, Jurupa Valley, and Perris—was cognizant of the growing alienation within the income strata in the United States. Many students who attended this talk resonated with his message.
“Congressman Takano painted a compelling portrait of the ways in which income inequality has harmed our society and generated what he called the opportunity gap,” Samuel Breslow PO ’18 said. Breslow also quoted 19th century French poet Antole France, in what he felt encompassed Congressman Takano’s overall talk: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets, and steal loaves of bread.”
Takano interwove economic theory, policy, and a humanity that reflected the seriousness and grave reality of his talk. However, his talk was not devoid of hope. Takano's anecdotes and stories reflected the capacity for compassion and understanding within people. As Justin Rodriguez CM ’19 wrote in an email to TSL, “I loved that he said, 'Too long have the fruits of economic growth not affected people who are poor.' For a low income person, I think it's hard to believe in government if you don't see it directly affecting you.”
Takano also allowed attendees to think about their own values, beliefs, and models that they use in their daily lives. “His talk on social safety nets reminds me of John Rawls' idea of ‘Justice as Fairness’ and ‘Veil of Ignorance,’” Sijia Lai CM '19 said. “The idea is that, when thinking about public policies, we can imagine that if we are born into other social groups, what kind of societal support would we want. By imagining that, we can think from others' situations and be more empathetic towards others.”
The talk was invigorating in its emphasis on action rather than passivity. It is easy to sometimes feel like a cog in the machine of politics, but Congressman Takano’s talk was a gentle reminder that despite titles, income, or status, we are all people. People have dreams, ideas, and innovations that have a life-changing potential. This is something precious and should not be limited by one’s access to resources. One's actions as part of a nation, as a citizen, and as a person should be not only for self-improvement, but also for the improvement of others.