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The Tragedy of American Compassion Paperback – February 1, 1994
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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.
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,
The "evidence" about the issues surrounding welfare in the U.S. are laid out here. From reading and considering what Olafsky wrote, you can then have an informed opinion, not simply spout politically correct platitudes.
This is neither easy nor hard reading but it is compelling.
This reviewer is someone deeply involved in public policy for healthcare. I found this book most useful and informative.
Top international reviews
In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries most Americans lived in quite small communities. Concerns about those in poverty and what made them poor were much less generalisations derived from the news and much more e.g.
“Have you noticed poor Widow Smith’s children have no shoes. Should we hold a collection to help her buy them some?”
Those who gave money were likely to notice whether Widow Smith’s children did have shoes thereafter, or whether she instead spent the money getting drunk. If the latter, she could not expect help in future and would be subject to social disapproval. Consequently, she had an incentive to behave responsibly. Contrast how today taxpayers who fund welfare benefits and officials who distribute them usually have no idea how the recipients actually spend them and whether they have adopted a lifestyle that keeps them poor.
In the 18th & 19th centuries many local charities were founded to relieve poverty, most linked to or inspired by churches or synagogues. Hence they often required those who accepted help from them to behave soberly, piously and industriously.
Sometimes this may have worked unfairly. It probably allowed some wealthier citizens to impose a morality on the poor that they did not live up to themselves. Some people may have been refused charity as ‘idlers’ who we might today regard as disabled by depression. It could give rise to the equivalent of ‘rice Christians’ in China: people who pretend to convert to Christianity when in need of the Church’s charity but leave the church as soon as they no longer need its help.
Even so, the author believes that overall this approach was more effective than modern systems in relieving poverty without creating dependency.
Most accounts agree that in the early nineteenth century USA there was very little long-term unemployment among the able bodied, except for a few, often alcoholics, too unreliable to be employable. Even they, without an extensive government benefits system, must sometimes have eventually been compelled by hunger to sober up and fit themselves for work. [While I do not think the author mentions it, in those days in the USA, with the opening up for settlement of the West and the growing economy, opportunities to find gainful employment were usually quite abundant for those willing and able to work, especially if they were prepared to travel to find it.]
Life was likely to be hard for single mothers, but for that reason fewer women risked becoming pregnant before they had a working husband able to support a family.
In those days Christianity certainly preached charity, but it also emphasized responsibility, sobriety and work.
From the later nineteenth century an increasingly sentimental, liberal Christianity was slower to judge and quicker to forgive wrongdoers. Whatever ethical or scriptural arguments there may be in favour of this, it meant that charity began to be dispensed less discriminatingly.
This tendency gained force once the government took over responsibility for most welfare, and especially from the 1960s. By then many on the left attacked the very idea of requiring those in receipt of welfare benefits to find and keep work and to adopt habits that would help them to do so.
The consequent growth of welfare dependency, and of lifestyle choices that made welfare dependency more likely, such as having children out of wedlock, risking addiction to drugs or alcohol or adopting a casual attitude to work, in the long-term often made life in or near poorer districts worse rather than better for many.
The author makes some good points about this, although it would be hard today to replicate some of the things that he believes worked successfully in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Most people no longer live in small communities where those who pay for poor relief know the individuals receiving it well enough to know if they use money they are given wisely. Nor is conservative Christianity so universally accepted today that it would be practical to make it the foundation of most welfare provision.