The Tragedy of American Compassion (1992), by Marvin Olasky
Dr. Marvin Olasky’s book, The Tragedy of American Compassion, is a concise historical analysis of how poverty was handled in the U.S. from colonial America of the 17th century to the 1990’s with recommendations for the future. Supporters said the book was a key work in defining “compassionate conservatism” as it relates to welfare and social policy and it had a significant impact on the Clinton welfare reforms. In it, Olasky argues that care for the poor must be the responsibility of private individuals and organizations, particularly the Christian church, instead of government programs like welfare—a great annoyance to progressives (Christian and Christophobic alike) enamored with expansive entitlement schemes. He suggests that government “programs are ineffective because they are disconnected from the poor, while private charity has the power to change lives because it allows for a personal connection between the giver and the recipient.” A recap is instructive; and I have added pertinent comments and bold quotes here and there.
Charity in the new world in the 1600’s was Christian based, perceiving that God was the God of justice and mercy which “led to an understanding of compassion that was hard-headed but warm-hearted:” (1) “God was not merely the establisher of principles but a personal intervener…” which “contributed to a sense that man, created after God’s image, should go beyond clockwork charity.” (2) “It was important for the better-off to know the poor individually, and to understand their distinct characters…” in order to make distinctions between “the mistreated poor” and those that “indulged in indolence.” They took Paul’s admonition to heart, “If man will not work, he shall not eat.” (3) “Spiritual help was a matter of obligation rather than request.” (4) Colonial compassion was cautious; Cotton Mather warned against misapplication—there were times to withhold charity. Clearly, the colonialists would not have been inclined to provide clean needles to drug addicts as we do today. “The social policy was based upon the theological view that stressed man’s sinfulness, which only God’s grace could change…” a kind of social Calvinism.
In the early 1800’s, this idea of “small-scale personal involvement rather than large scale administered relief” still held firm as the moral code of charity. In 1844, even the famous school text, the McGuffey Reader, expressed it in a dialogue, excerpted here:
Mr. Fanton: Sir, I have a plan in my head for relieving the miseries of the whole world…
Mr. Goodman: The utmost extent of my ambition at present is, to redress the wrongs of a poor apprentice, who has been cruelly used by his master…
Mr. Fanton: You must not apply to me for the redress of such petty grievances… It is provinces, empires, continents, that the benevolence of the philosopher embraces; every one can do a little paltry good to his next neighbor.
Mr. Goodman: “Every one can but I do not see that every one does… [You] have such a noble zeal for the millions, [yet] feel so little compassion for the units.”
The goal was to help those individuals who “were cruelly used” but charity groups were also aware “that the task of discernment was not easy,” that there were grey areas. Such practices of discernment with the “emphasis on an obligation to change” were highly criticized by 20th century thinkers as “moralistic,” paternalistic,” and “controlling.” The argument had some validity; but it was also arrogantly dismissive. When dealing with the miscreants, the accepted ethic was to “require the kind of self-confrontation that is evident at a modern Alcoholics Anonymous meeting when a person says, ‘I am an alcoholic.’” No one was left to starve, but “tough love” was standard practice. “Those who gave material aid without requiring even the smallest return were considered as much a threat to true compassion as those who turned their backs on neighbors and brothers.”
“If you ruin your life, you will pay the price of rehabilitating yourself … we are not punished for our sins, but by them. Liberty means responsibility.” – Michael Cloud
Urbanization clearly had its impact. It’s much easier to have knowledge of each and every situation in rural areas or small towns; and work was readily available, even if it only meant chopping wood or working in a sewing room. High levels of poor immigrants and the evolution of urban slums brought new challenges but… “People got by when other people took a personal interest in them. Ministers told their congregations that it was fine to contribute money, but the larger need, and more difficult task, was personal….The city could reflect the countryside when discipline and love were twins, not opposites; when obligations as well as rights were emphasized; when mutual obligation rather than mere transfer of material was the rule. Effective help in the cities, as in the countryside, had to be personal; those who were better off were to suffer with the troubled. It had to be conditional; when the recipient was responsible for his plight, he was to indicate a willingness to change. It had to honor those among the poor who did not give up; they had to be treated not as chumps but as human beings who deserved great ‘respect for character.’”
The dislike of government subsidies was widespread in the 1800’s but many city officials, wrestling with the problem acquiesced to limited governmental support in the form of “poorhouses.” Nonetheless, such government involvement was seen as “increasing the supply of poverty by ruining attitudes” because “government organizations would find it more difficult to say ‘yes’ to some and ‘no’ to others.” Nathaniel Ware, who wrote an Exposition of the Weakness and Inefficiency of the Government… in 1845, even referenced lessons of the fall of Rome when he “… predicted that an American governmental welfare system would develop, sooner or later, because officeholders liked to appeal to poor voters who would give them power to distribute large amounts of money and the patronage that accompanied expenditure. Ware noted that officers with more power would become more important and better paid.”
Messages from many pulpits followed this thinking…that whenever “there are large funds provided—and especially when provided by taxation, and distributed by state officers…idleness and improvidence would result.”
“When you subsidize poverty and failure, you get more of both.” – James Dale Davidson, National Taxpayers Union
Enter Horace Greeley, founder and editor of the New York Tribune, who “believed that people are naturally good and that every person has a right to both eternal salvation and temporal prosperity.” Greeley became involved in “communes” believing that man “had been corrupted by capitalist society, and that he hoped to put into practice the ideas of Charles Fourier, the French utopian socialist.” Along with a growing group of idealists, the powerful Greeley “pressed into popular discourse the notions that there was something immoral about economic competition, that everyone had a right to sustenance, and that forced redistribution of wealth through a collective agency might well be the moral way to fight poverty.”
Henry Raymond, a Presbyterian who had worked for the Universalist Greeley at one time (and eventually started the New York Times) challenged Greeley to “a duel by pen.” They agreed to twelve articles, which began in November 1846. It is a fascinating read but the essence of it was based on the origin of evil. Greeley believed that “social distinctions of master and servant, rich and poor, landlord and landless” were the origins of evil, not man’s sinful nature, because man is basically good. “The way to end evil was to redistribute wealth so that all receive an equal share…” Raymond had strong eloquently stated opinions to the contrary… “The heart must be changed. The law of man’s nature must cease to be the supreme law of his life. He must learn to subject that law to the higher law of righteousness….”
When Christ said, “Neither do I condemn thee,” he also added, “Go and sin no more.”
This debate all sounds quite familiar… the same battle would heat up in later generations and it continues today. In the mid 1800’s, though, the need for personal contact and suffering with the destitute continued to be stressed. “When personal contact was lost, social schemes became unrealistic and even destructive; the charitable equivalent of Gresham’s Law rolled into motion, for bad charity was capable of driving out good. Once some groups succumbed to the pressure to give indiscriminately, other groups faced pressure to do likewise, or risk being castigated as Scrooges and ignored by those it hoped to help.”
Following the Civil War, “compassion fatigue” set in due to growing economic segregation and the harsh ideology of Social Darwinism.
“The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly is to fill the world with fools.” – Herbert Spencer (1891)
Social Darwinism picked up many adherents, “equating the economic struggle among humans with the struggle for survival among animals. Philosopher Herbert Spencer suggested: “The unfit must be eliminated as nature intended, for the principle of natural selection must not be violated by the artificial preservation of those least able to take care of themselves.”
There were even those who took the Darwinian emphasis as far to suggest eugenic solutions. The Christian attitude, of course, is that nobody is beyond redemption. “Christians observed that Jesus neither abandoned the needy nor fed them immediately—instead, He taught them.” (Mathew 15 and Mark 6) Christians fought hard to beat back the new ideology as well as getting governments out of the welfare distribution business—a city-by-city struggle—to eliminate what they saw as “bad charity,” educating a whole group of people, and their children, to dependency. Citizens could see the problems “when officials create the impression that some right has been acquired by the pauper to an unlimited fund created by taxpayers… It is accessible and enticing… He regards [it] as his by right.” And then it becomes a demand.
Christians of that period saw Social Darwinism (Spencer) and the Social Universalism (Greeley) as misguided and harmful. They saw unconditional relief, as with many of the soup kitchens, as not generous but stingy: “Stingy in human contact, stingy in its estimation of what human beings made after God’s image were capable of doing and becoming, and stingy in refusing to divide up the available amount of material support so that those who really needed it received an ample supply, but those would be hurt by it [charity] received none.”
Conventional history texts, “if they mention pre-New Deal poverty fighting at all, suggest that (1) whatever happened is irrelevant… and (2) not much happened anyway.” Olasky showed in the first 80 pages that the first assumption is hardly valid, and for the second one, he gives detailed example after example of the urban focused private charitable organizations Christians (and Hebrews) of the late 1800’s formed to live their faith and fight off what they saw as destructive—homes for mothers and children and “friendless girls,” hospitals with free beds, “guardian” societies, adoption agencies, employment services, shelters for opium addicts and alcoholics, good Samaritan medical dispensaries, literary and athletic societies, schools, homes for the aged, nurseries, trade schools, a missions movement, the YMCA (1844), the YWCA (1858 in the U.S.), and the quite successful Salvation Army, all coupled with a growth in training for volunteers, bible readers, and improved “professionalism.”
“Labor is the life of society, and the beggar who will not work is a social cannibal feeding on that life.” – The Charities Review, December 1891
Olasky then asks the question: “What exactly did the charity of that era accomplish?” Since statistical records were scarce, “eyewitness reports and journalistic assessments,” which were abundant, suggests a great deal; and there was this sense of optimism at that time over what the author calls “The Seven Marks of Compassion:” (1) Affiliation—about restoring broken families and connections with friends, (2) Bonding—the volunteers worked to become part of a loving inner circle, (3) Categorization—charities did not treat everyone equally because each situation demanded different approaches, (4) Discernment—involved the ferreting out of fraud, important to preserve the morale of those who were working hard to remain independent. (5) Employment—people were assisted in finding jobs; even poor paying jobs were seen as a start down the road to developing skills and good work habits, (6) Freedom—from government programs that created dependency, i.e. enslavement; and freedom to perform a job without paying bribes, (7) God—taking into account spiritual needs as well as physical needs. Poverty would be dramatically reduced if the victims of lust and idleness revered the precepts of the Bible. And for the volunteers: “Repeatedly… the Bible told how when Israelites sinned they were to repent and turn away from their sin… late nineteenth-century Americans who read the Bible regularly did not see God as a sugardaddy who merely felt sorry for people in distress. They saw God showing compassion while demanding change, and they tried to do the same.”
Much remained to be done, however, simply because of the “mass” of the poor; and charity leaders were criticized for their preoccupation with individuals. Even though successful, it was not enough! The criticizers judged those doing the hard work by the apparent effects—as less than ideal—and themselves by their announced intentions. Social Universalist ideas resurfaced—man was basically “good and productive unless an oppressive system got in the way.” Along with socialistic ideology and theological liberalism, the Universalist ideas gained power with the intelligentsia. Many books were published espousing such thought and a new American “social gospel” was born emphasizing God’s love but not His holiness, urging charity but not challenge; and since the homeless needed housing, government construction of square block buildings was seen as more important than “affiliation” or any of the other quaint reactionary pre-modern ideas, e.g. the settlement house movement; see Jane Addams. There was a developing sense that government needed to plan and “reorder society and make men better.” In other words, government was on earth as an agent of God to save us all; and the people were…
“Dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.” – T. S. Elliot
“The trend was clear: Any time the charitable emphasis moved from the person to the mass and from souls to stone [buildings], government became the popular engine of progress.”
But the message being sent caused concern: “Every dollar it [the state] spends on the relief of the poor, is an admission that they have the right to be supported at the publics expense, whether their need be due to idleness and improvidence, or to a blameless failure to succeed in life.” – Robert Ellis Thompson, 1891
The 20th century brought a general optimism but the universalistic sociology that everyone has a “right” to provisions, regardless of circumstances, was gaining ground and with theological support…God was responsible for it, so it was “unfair” that anyone should suffer in this life…. “Man’s basic nature was not corrupt, but good; there were sins but not sin, evil acts but not evil. Problems arose from social conditions rather than inherent moral corruption…The primary cause of immorality was not sin, but lack of housing projects.”
The belief in man’s supreme goodness and government’s assumed role as man’s tool to create heaven on earth meant, “God was not needed.” A national welfare system was coming. In The Contribution of Religion to Social Work, 1932, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was worried about this trend. “He argued that social work could be ‘saved from sentimentality only by the shrewder insights’ of a faith that recognized the ‘selfishness of human life.’” Niebuhr called liberal Christianity “the most sentimental religion of our day.” The movement away from personal involvement became easy—the redistribution of income via taxes would provide “the ultimate in bureaucracy—an anonymous public supporting anonymous machinery supporting anonymous clients.”
The Great Depression was all that was needed to solidify the new philosophy. And while there was still a sense of shame among many who refused to accept the “dole” even though it was available, there was also, the counterforce that saw redistribution of wealth, nationalization of businesses and “control over private property in relation to a national plan.” Socialism / Utopianism had long been a sideshow but was now becoming mainstream, at least in the cities and universities. New Deal solutions, however, had to be sold as temporary measures since the general public was not yet ready to give up personal responsibility. Nonetheless, leftist doctrines elevated the idea that income was an entitlement and that means testing of relief should be abandoned, that relief should be depersonalized and a structure of “rights” established, that benefits should be paid without “investigations” as to validity. In other words, compassion became leniency or mere lubrication (to keep the riffraff, the great unwashed quiet.)
The 1960’s did not eliminate the old values, “even after a generation of softening up,” but clearly the idea that people were no longer accountable for their behavior since society was to blame, moved forward. To suggest otherwise was “blaming the victim.” Going on the dole wasn’t a humiliation now; honest work like shining shoes or mopping floors was labeled “demeaning” and readily accepted as such. Further, the mainline National Council of Churches became one of the leading sellers of entitlement values and eventually “demanded” that the federal government provide “adequate mechanisms for income distribution and income maintenance in an affluent society.” The mainline church message was that “poverty was socially caused and could thus be socially eliminated.”
Lyndon Johnson obliged with his plan to create a “Great Society” and waged a “War on Poverty.” Great Society legislation got passed quickly with an attitude of, “Pass the bill now, worry about its effects and implementation later.” Materialist thinking was dominant: “The way to eliminate poverty is to give the poor people enough money so that they won’t be poor anymore.” (An administration official quoted by Stewart Alsop.) The public was told that the “war on poverty” would cost only $12-15 billion per year and would last only ten years! With high expectations, an emphasis on “class” distinctions, newly claimed “rights,” the new lack of shame (even pride) for being on welfare, aggressive grievance procedures, numerous lawyers licking their chops, well-publicized bureaucratic nightmares, incompetence, and poor government performance, the riots started. Thus the paradox: The more that was spent on the poor, the more that needed to be spent. There was also a deliberate effort by radical elements to create a poverty crisis (since none existed; at least in comparison to the Depression) in order to overload the fumbling welfare bureaucracy, break it, and bring on real socialism. The watchwords were, “systemic pathologies” and “rights.” Theologians such as Harvard’s Harvey Cox sought for the “liberation” of the “oppressed” poor. The National Council of Churches proposed in 1968 “a guaranteed income for everyone, regardless of conduct.”
Nelson Bell, in a 1970 article in Christianity Today predicted that the politicization of poverty would create a… “Grave danger…its alleviation will become motivated by other than compassion, and its victims will be pawns in a sociological experiment that can cost billions in waste and bureaucratic management while it destroys initiative and breeds dependence on others.”
The courts got into the act and “the law became a handmaiden of income transfer, and a way of battering anyone who got in the way.” In the 1960’s, the welfare population exploded, particularly from 1965 to 1968, “a time of general prosperity and diminishing unemployment.” There were many reasons for this but one of the prime reasons was the changed attitude among those who would not have previously signed on to welfare. They had been taught by organizers that welfare is a right and therefore nothing to be ashamed of. Since the cornerstone of politics involve grievances, and the operative driver is winning the argument in order to alleviate those grievances, it could be said that the advocates of the Great Society won…but it was reinforced once again in American politics, that the law of unintended consequences is a relentless teacher. In February 1971, Time magazine said that Great Society compassion “satisfies no one: under the system it is unblessed to give and to receive.”
As the influential French diplomat Talleyrand said of the royal House of Bourbon, they have “learned nothing and forgotten nothing.”
By 1980, one big loser of the “entitlement revolution” was social mobility, not because of a lack of opportunity. The large influx of Asians and Cuban immigrants who approved of “bourgeois values,” and diligently worked to succeed in order to participate, generally stayed out of the welfare system but too many native born Americans chose to stay put. “The result was stasis. Lyndon’s Johnson’s economic advisors warned in 1964 that the poverty rate, in the absence of federal action, could be as high as 13% by 1980. After sixteen years of multibillion-dollar programs, the poverty rate at the end of that year was 13%.”
What irony! Another big loser was the decline of private programs—maudlin compassion driving out the good; the third loser was marriage; and the fourth involved lost children…the fathering of children and subsequent abandonment of them, justified all too often on the notion that they won’t starve; the government will look after them. (The welfare state, with its subsidies for illegitimacy, did what African-American economist Walter Williams says, slavery and segregation had not done: Destroy the black family—at least the family among the poorest and most vulnerable members of the black community.) The fifth big loser was charitable giving: Why give anything? My taxes are paying for it!
Olasky writes about the over-use of the word compassion during the 1980’s, calling it a “bull market.” Author Alan Bloom wrote about “conspicuous compassion” designed to bring about “nihilism with a happy ending.” The word compassionate became a euphemism for “more heavily-funded.”
“The notion that compassion toward the poor requires favoring expansion of government transfer programs has achieved the status of revealed truth…To suggest that government transfers should be reduced, or even tightly constrained, is to risk being rebuked as heartless.” – University of Georgia Professor Dwight Lee, 1989
The author notes two definitions of compassion: The original definition from The Oxford English Dictionary says, “suffering together with another, participating in suffering.” In Webster’s Third International Dictionary, the modernized version of compassion is defined as a “deep feeling for and understanding of misery or suffering and the concomitant desire to promote its alleviation.” Olasky then says, “There is a world of policy differences between those two definitions: One demands personal action, the other a ‘feeling’ that requires a willingness to send a check.”
America is a caring society. “But most of us are actually stingy—not because we refuse to spend more government money…but because we no longer offer our time and a challenge.” We live in a morally confused caring society. We’re loaded with people who would not think of directly stealing from their neighbor but who are willing to vote that the government does it for them.
“There is no virtue in compulsory government charity, and there is no virtue in advocating it. A politician who portrays himself as ‘caring’ and ‘sensitive’ because he wants to expand the government’s charitable programs is merely saying that he’s willing to try to do good with other people’s money. Well, who isn’t? And a voter who takes pride in supporting such programs is telling us that he’ll do good with his own money—if a gun is held to his head.” – Humorist P. J. O’Rourke
Olasky offers some recommendations…He covers the tragedy of unmarried pregnancies and children with no father present (although radical feminists do not view it as a problem, since a properly structured state funded day care is seen as preferable to the influences of an inadequately feminist-sensitized affiliated male.) He also delves into the nature of homelessness saying, “What is needed here is categorization and discernment, distinguishing those who are homeless because of a lack of housing from those who are homeless because they lack the capacity to live in a home.”
The greater the benefits for the homeless, then there is a larger group of people disposed to consider homelessness as a feasible option. “Most of the homeless, of course, would prefer to have permanent residences that would include rooms with views, but they are ‘subsidized to not obtain the skills and make the sacrifices necessary to obtain such housing, when substandard accommodation is available free.’
To sum up the author’s main recommendation: We should apply the historical principles that worked before Universalism, Socialism, and a maudlin theology assumed the dominant role in our thinking.
“The Lord your God is gracious and compassionate. He will not turn his face from you if you return to Him.” – Chronicles 30:9
Interestingly, Olasky views the primary erosion as theological. The “changed view of the nature of God and the nature of man led to impatience. The older view saw God as both holy and loving; the new view tended to mention love only… The older anthropology saw man as sinful and likely to want something for nothing, if given the chance. The new view saw folks as naturally good and productive, unless they were in an environment that warped their sensibilities. In the new thinking, change came not through challenge, but through placement in a pleasant environment that would bring out a person’s true, benevolent nature.” So what we’ve had is a kind of insanity—we kept doing the same thing over and over (detached but broad welfare programs) and expected different results. “C. S. Lewis wrote of the illogic that seizes many modern minds as we remove the organ and demand the function.”
“Most of us have grown up with personal peace and affluence…as the great goal. We like the way a welfare system…removes the burden of basic material care from our consciences, and protects us from the mean streets that we traverse only by day… [And we negatively] react to any prospect of removing the wall of pseudo-compassion” because we don’t want to get personally involved yet we still want to feel good about ourselves. We’ve expanded the use of the word compassion, conspicuously, making it mean too much, and therefore practically nothing.”
“Let the government look after the poor so I don’t have to.” – The unstated plea of millions
The author closes with a challenge that is anything but abstract: “Are we offering not coerced silver, but our lives? If we talk of crisis pregnancies, are we actually willing to provide a home to a pregnant young woman? If we talk of abandoned children, are we actually willing to adopt a child? Most of our twentieth-century schemes, based on having someone else take action, are proven failures. It’s time to learn from the warm hearts and hard heads of earlier times, and bring that understanding into our own lives.”