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The Tragedy Of American Compassion
By Marvin Olasky
January 27, 2005

(condensed from a review of the book by Marvin Olasky, "The Tragedy of American Compassion". Click on the link to read the entire book free!)

...Many in the poverty trade today would like us to believe that the difficulties and temptations people face now are somehow unique, more complicated and intractable than any in the past. But 17th, 18th, and 19th century America had it all: alcoholism, drug addiction, illegitimacy, crime, unemployment, abuse, social upheaval, grinding poverty. The crucial difference: those engaged in charity had a frank, clear-headed, unsentimental view of human nature - and they believed the problems were moral and spiritual ones, requiring moral and spiritual solutions.

Throughout our history, private, predominantly religious charities proliferated: ...literally hundreds of such groups that sprang up across the country ... The crucial understanding was simple yet profound: people were helped because other people took a personal interest in them.

And for decades, there was a consensus among those engaged in the work of these organizations, and among society at large: that some poor (destitute through no fault of their own) were deserving of help and others were not; that much poverty resulted when human beings, of their own free will, chose destructive paths (alcohol and vice); that such erring individuals should and could, with God's help, change course; that all able to work, must; that those who helped must give of their time, must give of their love, must give religious counsel and encouragement and admonition; that money alone, given indiscriminately, was poisonously destructive.

Olasky summarizes the ideas that energized charity workers a century ago...

AFFILIATION. Charity organizations instructed all volunteers to work hard at restoring family ties;...

BONDING. The charitable volunteer was expected to become deeply involved in the lives of those in need ... (contrast with today's social worker, juggling dozens of welfare "clients" and mountains of bureaucratic paperwork.)

CATEGORIZATION. Charities did not treat all the same. There were those "worthy of relief" (orphans, the aged, the terminally ill, etc.); others were given a work test, often to chop wood, and classified as "needing work rather than relief." The alcoholic, unscrupulous, or lazy who were unwilling to change were labeled "unworthy, not entitled to relief." Volunteers visited them to exhort, not subsidize.

DISCERNMENT ... Volunteers were alert to potential fraud. They also knew better than to give money to alcoholics, which was considered immoral...

EMPLOYMENT. "If a man will not work, neither shall he eat," ... Work by the able-bodied was considered critical to health - physical, spiritual, psychological, familial, societal - the undebatable first principle of American charity ... In the absence of a job, able-bodied men chopped wood for the charitable organization's use, and women sewed clothing for the charity's distribution.

FREEDOM. This was defined as the opportunity to work and worship without governmental restriction, to get a foot on the lowest rung of the ladder...

GOD. Theology was the essential key to American charity for centuries. Relief was never separate from the acknowledgment of the spiritual reclamation and redemption possible for fallen human beings. And spiritual transformation was the only thing that could change an alcoholic, addict or abuser into a productive, temperate citizen.

The "tragedy" of the book's title occurred when this slow process, this one-by-one, individual-by-individual, person-to-person work, was seen by the elites early in this century as not being enough. Why not do more? Why not make relief universal and immediate? The elites disagreed with the common view that poverty was often the result of vice, freely chosen. They, instead, believed that people were naturally good; the mass transformation of society and elimination of poverty were possible if wealth was redistributed. And of course, charitable work had to be rid of this bothersome religious claptrap.

... The job to make relief universal to anyone who qualified (that is, anyone who was entitled to it) was handed over to the state... Gone was the emphasis on personal responsibility. Gone was any penalty of able-bodied and mentally competent individuals who would not work. Gone was any scrutiny of behavior, since that was caused by "society" anyway.

... Has poverty been eliminated, or even reduced? And what of the poverty of spirit that stalks the streets of every once-great American city?

Americans have, by bitter experience, once again learned what those in centuries past already knew: that relief provided by the state is "not generous but stingy - stingy in human contact, stingy in its estimation of what human beings mad after Gods image are capable of doing and becoming." Now that we have learned, it may finally be time to re-examine - and recreate - the great generosity of traditional American compassion.