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The Tragedy of American Compassion Paperback – March 10, 2008

4.2 out of 5 stars 62 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This is a richly documented, controversial history of the welfare state as seen from a conservative political perspective. The system is generous with money but stingy on human involvement, argues Olasky, a University of Texas journalism professor: compassion means tough love in which those who give must demand self-help from those who receive. But Olasky adds a proviso that the giver too must be personally involved. He holds up the example of 19th-century charity workers, whose religious beliefs made them compassionate and willing to deal intimately with the poor, rather than dispensing money to them through government agencies. There's plenty of social history here--from Horace Greeley, soup kitchens and orphan asylums to today's homeless impasse. Olasky does not blame the system for poverty. He faults the poor, along with social workers back to Jane Addams and the founders of the settlement house movement.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"One of the 50 most influential policy books of all time."

"A richly documented, controversial history of the welfare state."
Publisher's Weekly

"Significant changes in government social welfare policy have unfolded since The Tragedy of American Compassion emerged in 1992-just think about the paradigm-shifting federal welfare reform of 1996. Both the book's critics and its promoters would argue that Olasky's ideas mattered and gave shape, to some degree, to some of those changes."
Amy L. Sherman, Senior Fellow, Sagamore Institute for Policy Research; author, Kingdom Calling: Vocational Stewardship for the Common Good

"Those who read and understand Olasky's work will be better prepared to move creatively in affirming the dignity of the poor, and in affirming work as a virtue."
John M. Perkins, President, John M. Perkins Foundation for Reconciliation and Development

"For domestic policy understanding, no better book recommends itself than Marvin Olasky's splendid The Tragedy of American Compassion."
Orange County RegisterOrange County Register

"One of 'eight books that changed America.'"
Philanthropy Philanthropy

Colorado Gazette-TelegraphColorado Gazette-Telegraph

Wall Street JournalWall Street Journal

"There is no disagreement between liberals and conservatives about whether to help the lot of the poor, but there is grave disagreement about how to help them, especially because the wrong kind of 'help' is more likely to harm. In The Tragedy of American Compassion, Marvin Olasky shows that although government can assist the merciful efforts of persons, organizations, and communities of faith, it cannot take their place."
J. Budziszewski, Professor of Government and Philosophy, University of Texas at Austin; Author of What We Can't Not Know: A Guide

"A comprehensive, well documented, and much needed study of the decline of true compassion that provides fresh analysis and provocative insight into the causes and cures of this American tragedy. Must reading for people who want to understand and help correct the plight of hurting people."
Anthony T. Evans, Founder, The Urban Alternative


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Crossway (March 10, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1433501104
  • ISBN-13: 978-1433501104
  • Product Dimensions: 0.8 x 6 x 8.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 15.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (62 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,076,421 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Editor-in-chief of WORLD. Holder, Patrick Henry College chair in journalism and public policy. Dean, World Journalism Institute. Senior Fellow, Acton Institute.

Love: Susan and I have been married for 35 years. Four terrific sons and one wonderful daughter-in-law: Peter and Catherine, David, Daniel, and Benjamin

Formal education: B.A. from Yale University in 1971, Ph.D. in American Culture from the University of Michigan in 1976. Real education: Grew up in Judaism, became an atheist and a communist, and then (purely through God's grace) a Christian in 1976.

Other activities over the years: foster parent, Pony League assistant coach, PTA president, board chairman of a crisis pregnancy center and a Christian school, elder in the Presbyterian Church in America. Credited (or discredited) with developing the ideas of compassionate conservatism and biblical objectivity.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Just as it is easier for any of us to practice our compassion by voting for more government programs and occasionally tossing some checks at charities, it probably would have been easier for Mr. Olasky to hold the fire that is this remarkable book. While others (including some of the 20+ friends and colleagues I've favored with copies of this book) complain a bit about Olasky's somewhat comprehensive treatment of the history of charity in America, I found those portions of his book particularly illuminating. How edifying indeed to learn that over 200 years of truly compassionate reformers had warned us against the mockery of compassion that is the welfare state, that it would deprive the needy of essential personal contact with benefactors and volunteers, that it would lend "assistance" breeding dependence and personal ruin, and that it would fail to make the great demands on givers and recipients alike necessary to render compassion either true or effective. If you have ever found yourself frustrated that an attempt to help a needy person, family, or neighborhood failed, this book can likely show what was missing, just as it shows what is missing on a staggering scale in our country's misguided effort to use government to help the needy. A book destined to be unpopular among those with a stake in relieving private citizens of their personal responsibilities to their fellow man, those receiving benefits without efforts at achieving independence, and those with an agenda to expand the authority of government on the false promise of a great society. No responsible commentator on present-day American can afford not to read this book. Bravo, Mr. Olasky.
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Format: Paperback
Most of us know the U.S. spent trillions of dollars, fighting the "war on poverty" launched by Lyndon Johnson in the 1960's. But "poverty" abides, apparently sinking ever deeper roots as fertilizing monies are applied to abolish it! Most of us, if we'd been investing in a speculative enterprise which went bankrupt, would stop investing, however passionately its board of directors presented their pleas. Illogically enough, the architects of the welfare state still insist that more money is needed to bail out a bankrupt system! Good sense, one would think, would say enough's enough and find something better.
That's basically the argument of Marvin Olasky in The Tragedy of American Compassion (Wheaton: Crossway Books, c. 1992), a treatise which deserves our attention. Olasky is a professor at The University of Texas and editor of World magazine. He blends ample research (as befits a professor) with readable prose (as befits a journalist).
As the book's title indicates, "compassion" in America has taken some "tragic" turns, devouring the very people it allegedly helps. The means to "suffer with," thus personally identifying with and caring for persons who have needs. But recently "compassion" has come to mean "feel for" victims of inequitable social systems. As used by newspapers in the 1980's, it became "a synonym for 'leniency'" (p. 196) and justified everything from grade inflation to trivial sentences for murderers to massive punitive awards in civil cases.
Similarly, people living in poverty no longer have "needs." They have "entitlements." Rather than asking for help, they're encouraged to demand their "rights.
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FELLOW LEFTIES AND LIBERALS, it is time to listen patiently to what Marvin Olasky has to say, at least to his main premise. If we are honest, welfare-by-government has not only helped a lot of people but also caused a lot of problems. If we are honest, we all feel there must be a better way. I was astonished to find myself agreeing with Olasky on one big point: he says that you may help the needy, but only if you are close enough to them to know who they are, and what their real needs are. A family with a jobless single parent is going to need a hand-- well, make friends with them and help out. Babysit. Feed the kids. The block drunk doesn't just need a poke of groceries, (though he may need that too) he needs a friend and mentor who loves him enough to also give him heck when he needs it. Get it? Big Blind Programs don't do it.
Having said that, Olasky is a unrealistic to think that good people will fill the void. They won't. What needs to change is the whole possession-worship, or dollar worship that we all buy into. Gerry Spence calls it "...the New King that America has crowned. His blood is green....." Property kills the godly impulse of generosity that we were all born with. Don't leave it to the gummint to love your fellow-man.
Marvin Olasky is a conservative, no doubt. But before you decide to tar-brush the man, listen to him.
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The homeless are not that way by chance. They used to be called 'vagrants, hobos, bums, degenerates, thugs, tramps, derelicts, or drifters'. About 80% of the 'homeless' are alcoholics or drug addicts. They are not this way because of defects in society. Government programs do not even try to address these problems.
True compassion (feeling or suffering with) involves dealing with these people in person. Government programs have just made the problem worse; they have prevented getting help to these people.
Compassion involves getting to know these people and care about them. They don't need any more people to hand out damned blankets and food. There are people lining up to do this.
Go have lunch with some 'homeless', learn their names and personalities. Here's a picture of a real homeless person as opposed to the mental pictures most people have: Joe the programmer has the knowledge and experience to make $75/hr easily. Everytime he gets comfortable materially, he goes on a bender and ends up in an emergency room or the police pick him out of the gutter. He goes through another bout of homelessness having lost everything again. One of these benders is going to kill Joe. Joe knows it, I know it, all God's children know it. This time Joe has a good sponsor, is working his program hard and is working as a foot messenger downtown to avoid the problems of affuence that trip him up. This is a heroic story of struggle against terrible demons, far better than Star Wars. I am priviliged to know Joe. There are many stories like this.
Did you know you can live in a rental storage shed for $20/month? Dry, clean with electricity. Some homeless have favored this, although you have to climb a chain link fence to go out at night and get back in.
If you care about people like this and want to really help, read Marvin Olasky's book first, then go do the right thing.
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