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on November 16, 1999
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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on April 7, 2009
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." Such rhetoric reflects a major shift in America's moral tradition, turning away from the Christian understanding of man as innately sinful to a humanistic belief in the essential goodness of man. An acknowledged sinner confesses his "needs" and asks for help, but a self-esteem-full humanist demands "entitlements," arguing he's been victimized by his environment.
To help us understand these developments, Olasky takes us on an instructive historical survey. From 1620-1900, Americans demonstrated what Alexis de Tocqueville described as '"compassion for the sufferings of one another'" (p. 219). They followed the call of the Gospel, as understood by John Wesley, to "Put yourself in the place of every poor man and deal with him as you would God deal with you'" (p. 8). Yet they refused, following Cotton Mather, to subsidize sin by tolerating idleness: '"Don't nourish 'em and harden 'em in that, but find employment for them. Find 'em work; set 'em to work; keep 'em to work'" (p. 9)
Such guidelines, rooted in Scripture, prompted the formation of thousands of benevolent associations, designed to help those in need. They implemented programs such as that designed by Thomas Chalmers, the great Scottish theologian, in Glasgow in the 1820's. His effort, "described as thoroughly Christian in its severity and its generosities'" (p. 25), effectively cared for the needy and reduced poverty-related problems in his parish.
As Olasky sums up Chalmers' program, "four key principles" stand clear. First, discern the difference between laziness ("pauperism") and real need ("poverty"). Second, resist government programs which encourage pauperism by discouraging personal discipline and self-help. Third, to help those in poverty Christians must become personally involved, for the poor need much more than material assistance. Fourth, those who take no responsibility to escape poverty must be abandoned to suffer the consequences of their decisions.
Thus most "compassionate" associations followed a "tough love" agenda. Understanding the depravity of man, caring Christians refused to be manipulated by the con-men ready to live by others' labor. Many charitable organizations had wood-lots next to their facility, insisting that able-bodied men cut wood before getting assistance. The wood was subsequently delivered to poor widows. They sought, by careful investment of time as well as resources, to discern the "truly needy" and provide "charity" in appropriate ways. Their "compassion" sought to free men and women from their predicament, not to dole out enough benefits to make them comfortable in their deprivation.
The success of such endeavors impressed observers such as Jacob Riis, whose How the Other Half Lives illustrated the misery of tenement-dwellers in New York. Despite the problems, however, Riis wrote: "'New York is, I firmly believe, the most charitable city in the world. Nowhere is there so eager a readiness to help, when it is known that help is worthily wanted; nowhere are there such armies of devoted workers.' Riis described how one charity group over eight years raised '4,500 families out of the rut of pauperism into proud, if modest, independence, without alms.' He noted another 'handful of noble women . . . accomplished what no machinery of government availed to do," rescue 60,000 street kids (pp. 100-101). Associations such as these, Olasky finds, inculcated "seven seals" of good philanthropy: "Affiliation, Bonding, Categorization, Discernment, Employment, Freedom, God" (p. 101).
"Affiliation" meant trying to help those in need re-establish ties with families, friends, churches, who most naturally could assist them. Government-controlled programs tend to dissolve families, as is evident in the alarming increase of single women receiving AFDC payments.
"Bonding" resulted as compassionate associations insisted volunteers build personal relationships with the needy; volunteers spent time with them, knew their stories, detected frauds, provided the many non-material goods poor folks need. Today's social workers, frequently overwhelmed with paper work and large case loads simply cannot form close, compassionate bonds with their "clients." The very word, "client," illustrates the impersonality of the welfare state's poverty programs.
"Categorization" included careful research into the history and actual conditions of the poor, determined to help only those who were "worthy." Compassionate associations insisted on categorizing their charges--"shiftless and intemperate" folks received short shrift.
"Discernment" was essential to eliminate the frauds. As one New Orleans organization said, "'Intelligent giving and intelligent withholding are alike true charity," and 'If drink has made a man poor, money will feed not him, but his drunkenness'" (p 108). When "entitlements" became normative, welfare workers found it difficult to make such distinctions.
"Employment" was always the goal for the poor. Associations demanded able-bodied men and women work, for they sought to free them from the shame and indignity of unemployment as quickly as possible. Committed to helping them find permanent employment and the end of dependence, they devised programs which freed them and provided the self-respect so lacking in impoverished persons. Government social workers, unfortunately, often encourage long-term dependence on the system because their funding requires a suitable number of "clients."
Finally, charitable organizations openly called people to God. Volunteers felt they were, above all, on soul-saving missions--giving material assistance was simply part of the project. Without God's assistance, little hope was offered the alcoholic, the drifter, the unwed pregnant woman. Welfare agencies, particularly under the "wall of separation" decrees of the courts, have effectively eliminated God as a source of help in dealing with addictions or climbing out of poverty.
The poverty question is ultimately a theological question, as Olasky makes clear. During the 19th century, Horace Greeley's soteriological Universalism bled over into a social Universalism, logically arguing that since human beings are essentially "good" they simply need a rectified environment to be happy. "Greeley believed that 'the heart of man is not depraved: that his passions do not prompt to wrong doing, and do not therefore by their action, produce evil'" (p. 55).
Countering Greeley, social Calvinists insisted human desires, perversely sinful, needed discipline and direction. Compounding the discussion, social Darwinists insisted that the poor were unfit for the struggle to sur¬vive and deserved neither compassion nor assistance. In time, however, the Greeley view prevailed. Economists and sociologists embraced the notion that man is basically good. Evils of various sorts stem from social conditions which can be rectified by political action. For example, "Professor Richard Ely founded the American Economic Association with the goal of disseminating universalistic ideas, including his own belief in 'the exercise of philanthropy' as 'the duty of government'" (p. 121).
As such views triumphed, the older approach to "charity" was swept aside. "Bad charity," Olasky says, "drove out good charity" (p. 127). It's time to reinstate the good! "Government welfare programs need to be fought," Olasky says, "not because they are too expensive--although, clearly, much money is wasted--but because they are inevitably too stingy in what is really important, treating people as people and not animals" (p. 233). There's a way which worked, Olasky insists, and if the government turned over the "welfare" task to charitable organizations real "compassion" could be restored to the fabric of American society.
Whether or not Olasky has the solution I'm not sure. He at least shows one that did quite well for 250 years. He also shows us that the one we've followed for 100 years has tragically failed. At least it's time to explore alternatives!
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on January 20, 2001
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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on January 22, 2000
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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on May 1, 2007
In his book The Tragedy of American Compassion, Marvin Olasky confronts us with two uncomfortable truths. The first truth is one that many sense intuitively, but are afraid to speak. That truth is that for all of our good intentions government entitlements have created much of the generational poverty and welfare dependence. Beginning by making a distinction between poverty (a situation where one is without resources) and pauperism (a situation where one is without resources and unwilling help ones self) he illuminates how the shift from private to public welfare created entitlements. Entitlements, by definition, cannot demand the recipient assume any personal responsibility for their condition or its relief. Consequently, what is intended as compassion becomes slavery.

The second uncomfortable truth is that the shift from private to public funding of benevolent work has allowed the individual members of the church to avoid contact with the poor, depriving the poor role models and the church of the blessing of serving the poor as demanded by Christ.

Olasky's solution is for the government to support private charities and let them serve the poor. Private charities can discriminate between the poor and the paupers where the government cannot. Written in 1992 this book became the blueprint for compassionate conservatism and the Faith Based Initiatives of the Bush administration.

While those on the left may take issue with some of Olasky's views, they can be instructed by the history and improve their effectiveness by listening. I recommend the book to anyone who is interested in genuinely helping the poor.
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on May 29, 2012
If you, at a gut level, feel there's something amiss in our government's interminable 'war on poverty,' Marvin Olasky will bring the historical context to help you understand it, and to find a way forward that combines mercy and love, with preservation of human dignity.

Why did relative poverty plummet precipitously from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s, then level off for the next 45 years, after the government began pouring trillions into efforts to eradicate it?
How did the word compassion -- which means 'suffering with' -- come to mean merely 'feeling sorry for'?
What role should character and behavior play in alleviating personal poverty?
Why don't government agencies live by the preamble to the Hippocratic Oath -- first, do no harm?
How did turn of the century (1900) Utopianism, and scriptural revisionism, especially among mainline protestant churches, reshape political perspectives on poverty?

This book is succinct, clear, well-documented, and crucial for helping us to escape the unsustainable, counter-productive 'war on poverty', and to move toward an historically-proven, personally-engaging compassion that unites society as it preserves human dignity, ennobling the giver and receiver alike.

Live the Freedom,
Scott Ott
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on March 13, 2000
Olasky takes his readers on a very thorough, and rather academic, journey, looking at how society historically provided for those less fortunate and what lessons we can learn from it today. Whether one agrees with Olasky's religious views or not, he presents a compelling historical argument for the success of private institutions providing for those of us who are less fortunate.
This book is not written by an armchair quarterback academic writing in a sequestered academic office in some ivy-league shool. It is good, line-level writing from someone who has lived among those of whom he writes - all the more credible the writing.
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TOP 50 REVIEWERon January 24, 2014
Marvin Olasky's "The Tragedy of American Compassion" is a truly seminal work in the broader movement to create a compassionate response by the church in particular and the private sector in general to the poverty in our midst. As of the writing of this review (2014) it has been nearly two decades since Olasky's book was published and almost fifty years since President Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty. That war has not been won. In fact, by some measures we are at best treading water or even losing ground. The thesis that the private sector can offer a far more compassionate and certainly less expensive solution to the poverty in our midst, which is Olasky's major thesis in this book, is one that should be considered. But if we are to put it into practice, we must do more than consider it. Those in the private sector who are serious about helping the poor in their midst will have to make the sacrifice of time and resources for this to be done.

In addition to this being a call to action, Olasky also presents an overview of the history of American compassion. Here, although many of the details are reasonably accurate, Olasky has a somewhat rose-colored view of the effectiveness of charity in the nineteenth century (when, according to Olasky, it was primarily a private concern) as opposed to the ineffectiveness of the governmentally-run charity programs of the twentieth century. As others have noted, nineteenth-century charity may not have been as consistently private-sector or as effective as Olasky would have us believe. However, this quibble as to his interpretation of nineteenth-century charity should not detract from the overall value of the book.
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on January 20, 2015
An eye-opener for those that believe throwing money at a problem will fix it. This is not a "politically correct" book but, there are plenty of facts and history to back up the context of hard work produces wealth.
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on March 8, 2015
I should have read this years ago.
This is the history of private charity and early efforts at local government charity, starting in colonial times and running up to our present day.
Most college textbooks seem to dismiss this part of our history. Many people, including in academia, are simply unaware that combating poverty did not begin with L.B. Johnson's War on Poverty or FDR's New Deal.
This corrects that blind spot.
It also addresses the imbalances in our current approach to poverty.
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