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!
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.
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,