Most of us know the U.S. has spent some five trillion 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 survive 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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Reading Olasky prodded me to read a book I’ve seen cited for ten years, Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980, by Charles Murray (New York: HarperCollins, c. 1984). The author is a social scientist who assembles data designed to show the massive federal assault on poverty and racial discrimination has miserably misfired. For example, in 1968 some 13 percent of the nation was poor; 12 years later, after funding multiplied poverty programs, spending 20 times as much in constant dollars, 13 percent was still poor.
Before the great “war on poverty,” during the 1950’s, however, conditions had steadily improved in various sectors. The surprising reversal of this trendline, Murray believes, illustrates an eminently understandable change in attitude among the poor themselves. Welfare suddenly makes it profitable, for a while at least, to stay poor! When government programs reduced incentives to escape poverty, many folks understandably opted to enjoy the proffered benefits. “We tried to provide more for the poor and produced more poor instead. “We tried to remove the barriers to escape from poverty, and inadvertently built a trap” (p. 9).
Those programs came like a flood in the 1960’s, orchestrated by Lyndon Baines Johnson. New Deal programs, such as Social Security, were not massive endeavors. A constellation of factors converged to launch the “Great Society.” In Murray’s judgment, “In only three years, from 1964 to the end of 1967–what I shall refer to as the ‘reform period’–social policy went from the dream of ending the dole to the institution of permanent income transfers that embraced not only the recipients of the dole but large new segments of the American population. It went from the ideal of a color-blind society to the reinstallation of legalized discrimination. They were polar changes that were barely recognized as such while they were happening” (pp. 24-25). As a result of this upheaval, a decade later “Hardly anyone argued that it was fundamentally wrong to take tax dollars from one worker whose paycheck, the government had decided, was too large, and give them to another worker whose paycheck, the government had decided, was too small. Ten years earlier, hardly anyone would have argued that it was right” (p. 46).
Murray scans employment statistics, showing that during the 1950’s the government did nothing to subsidize job training. During the 1970’s, it expended $76 billion, enrolling 32 million persons, specifically designed to help disadvantaged young people. Amazingly, the 1970’s were worse than the 1950’s for the unemployed!
Similar trends characterize other social realms such as education, crime, family stability. The more government spends the worse things seem to get! The grand designs of the Great Society, eliminating racism and poverty, have not been achieved. It’s time, Murray insisted (10 years ago), to re-think what we’re doing. “Why pay for welfare? Why pay for Food Stamps? Why pay for scholarships for poor students? Most answers are not so much reasons as affirmations of faith” (p. 196).
Why should we design income transfers, “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” since Peter is only modestly better off than Paul? Murray says “social policy after the mid-1960’s demanded an extraordinary range of transfers from the most capable poor to the least capable, from the most law-abiding to the least law-abiding, and from the most responsible to the least responsible” (p. 201).
Murray’s work, I think, statistical supports Olasky’s more recent analysis. What Murray lacks is the call to Christian compassion. Murray’s essentially libertarian approach effectively questions the premises and promises of the welfare state. What it lacks is a moral appeal to men and women of good will who want to help the poor.
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Forty years ago Bertrand de Jouvenel gave a series of lectures at Cambridge University which have been published as The Ethics of Redistribution (Cambridge: University Press, 1952; reprint, Indianapolis: LibertyPress, c. 1990). Rather than assess economic or political questions, de Jouvenel asks an essentially moral question: ought wealth be redistributed by political dictate.
Since Aristotle, ethicists have recognized the legitimacy of distributive justice, granting certain goods to citizens with bona fide rights, such as life, liberty, and private property. Too frequently, in our century, clear definitions have been sacrificed, and “‘just’ is whatever is thought emotionally desirable” (p. 18). From earliest days those concerned for justice have focused on the right distribution of natural resources. Calls for agrarian reform, distributing a nation’s land so as to enable all men to work and support themselves, have traditionally fallen under the umbrella of “distributive justice.”
Income redistribution is something else, de Jouvenel argues. Redistributionism, far more than seeking to grant citizens what’s due them, seeks to equalize wealth. Land was recognized as a gift of God, thus rightly shared by all. Income, the work of one’s hands, comes not from God but from the person. So, in his first lecture, “The Socialist Ideal,” de Jouvenel acknowledges “It is now generally regarded as within the proper province of the State, and indeed as one of its major functions, to shift wealth from its richer to its poorer members” (p. 5). The question is: ought such be done?
The past two centuries, socialistic thinkers have targeted “private property” as the principal culprit underlying class conflict and injustice. Abolishing private property, Marx et al. said, would lead to the withering away of the state and a utopian paradise. (Ironically, only religious communities seem able to live out the socialist vision. Saints like Francis of Assisi have cheerfully redistributed their wealth out of love for God and their brothers.)
Socialists, however, appalled by the anguish of the poor, blamed the rich and sought to rectify the glaring “injustice” through income redistribution. What they found, of course, is that the wealth of the “rich” was insufficient to eliminate the poverty of the poor. So ordinary workers had to be taxed as well as government planners seek to provide everyone “maximal satisfaction.”
In the process of redistributing the wealth, the State becomes increasingly powerful. Indeed, de Jouvenel notes, in his second lecture, “The more one considers the matter, the clearer it becomes that redistribution is in effect far less a redistribution of free income from the richer to the poorer, as we imagined, than a redistribution of power from the individual to the State” (p. 72).
Still more: the voracious State even seeks to assume the financing artistic and cultural activities. “All advocates of extreme redistribution couple it with the most generous measures of state support for the whole superstructure of cultural activities” (p. 42). (To understand why the Congress first funded PBS, NPR, and NEH in the 1960’s one must simply understand the ethics of redistributionism.)
In Lecture Two, de Jouvenel addresses “State Expenditure.” Here he insists the redistributionists make a fatally-flawed assumption: that consumption defines “good life,” to the degree that equalizing income equalizes happiness. In fact, our lives are enriched by many non-material goods. Talented, generous persons, if allowed to freely earn a living and accumulate goods, may in the process help a nation far more than their tax-taken wealth.
“Indeed,” de Jouvenel says, “social history teaches us that what we have of civilization was bought at an enormous cost, the elites from which we derive our culture having been supported by sweated masses” (p. 59). Economically undeveloped countries, more than anything else, need generous-spirited leaders and entrepreneurs, not state-dictated redistributionism. Mandatory wealth-sharing schemes ultimately reduce the real wealth shared.
Still more: individuals and families should enjoy at least as many rights and privileges as corporate entities and states. Ironically, corporations and governments enjoy legal rights denied persons. For example, “the profit-seeking enterprise has a treble advantage over the family, which is taxed as progressive rates and is not allowed to provide for depreciation of its assets or to deduct operating expenses. And yet the family performs in society no less important a function than the firm” (p. 61). Imagine being able to deduct “entertainment” and “overhead” expenses on one’s income tax forms! “It is quite incomprehensible that a breeder of dogs for the race-track should be allowed his costs, depreciation, etc., while the father of the family is not” (p. 62).
Individuals have been turned into tax-paying workers who support the State, which grants legal privileges to various corporations. They’re allowed to keep part of their income and buy consumer goods. In the process, the purely voluntary cultural activities, the truly meaningful family endeavors, have been pushed to the periphery of society.