Thursday, September 10, 2015

The New Politics of Poverty

By Lawrence M. Mead
Reviewed by Robert A. Sirico, CSP
October 14, 1992

Just about everyone, regardless of political stripe, seems to agree that there is a crisis in the welfare system. Even if our conclusions differ as what exactly to do about it, we all agree that the work ethic among Americans is eroding before our eyes. Perhaps that terribly obscure and unnecessarily narrow phrase "family values" this election season is really an attempt to discuss the value of fostering a society whose members learn how to function both well and productively.

Lawrence Mead, an associate professor of politics at New York University, initiates just such a discussion. Professor Mead, who has probably spent more time as a policy analyst in Washington than is good for him, has written a balanced book that will enable us to examine the phenomena of nonwork among the poor, and the "new politics" it has engendered, with greater insight and clarity.

This rather hefty tome considers the subject of welfare dependency from almost every imaginable angle, and it is written by a scholar whose previous work (Beyond Entitlement: The Social Obligations of Citizenship, 1986) might merit him the title of "the Father of Workfare." While crediting the work of George Gilder (Wealth and Poverty, 1984) and Charles Murray (Losing Ground, 1984) for setting the agenda for welfare reform, Professor Mead's own work has been the occasion for the renewed debate over the predicating the reception of welfare assistance with responsibility. Mr. Mead is concerned that a way be found to use the poor's own energy to break the apparent cycle of defeatism. He believes that what is needed are programs that are "authoritative without being authoritarian."

In this present book Mr. Mead intends, in part, to reply to the critics of his previous work, as well as to get his readers to focus beyond the obvious fact that some people are poor. Poverty, we are reminded, is a state of affairs that always has been, and if Jesus was correct, always will be part of the human social reality. Mr. Mead wants us to probe the question more deeply and ask why the poor, in greater numbers, have stopped working.

The question is, after all, a legitimate and indeed necessary one if we are really concerned about helping people. Even the founding fathers of the welfare state, such as Keynes, envisioned the need for a welfare state would diminish as prosperity increased. Instead, we find ourselves up against the reality that some sections of the poor have simply stopped working to better their state.

Mr. Mead demonstrates that while the percentages of those considered able to work rises, the numbers of heads of households actually working declines. In his previous work Mr. Mead argued that the permissiveness of the welfare state, along with its unwillingness to set standards of behavior, is the cause of its failure, than the extent to which it did or did not assist the poor.

The question in focus in this book is why the poor are not working. The stereotype of the typical poor person as one of the working poor is, the author claims, a virtual myth. Those in poverty who work begin to rise, slowly but definitely, out of poverty. If Mr. Mead's study is accurate, and his case is persuasively presented, then a rethinking of the approach to poverty program development is long overdue, and the extent to which public policy presupposes a working population of the poor will need to be reconsidered.

Mr. Mead's results directly challenge the reticence one frequently encounters among well intentioned policy planners to consider questions of behavior, work ethic, and social standards when designing poverty programs. The idea that requiring some set of standards of the poor for assistance is mean-spirited, harsh, judgmental, and even "unchristian," must be laid to rest once and for all.

It would appear, moreover, that this is the general attitude of the American public. Polls indicate that there is a preference among Americans that social programs promote self-sufficiency, not dependency.

One by one Mr. Mead sets up then demolishes a series of explanations for nonwork among the poor: low wages, lack of jobs, racial bias, lack of child care -- all these and more are examined and shown not to be the root of the problem. The problem, Mr. Mead convincingly shows, the passive personality trait which results from a psychology of poverty.

This contention leads Mr. Mead into a detailed exploration of human nature, and the various programs proposed to get at the core problem.

Professor Mead makes a cogent observation when he says that "Once radicals redistributed. Today, they merely exempt from social standards." Certainly this is a deadly shift. He is also correct to observe that "The old issues were economic and structural; the new ones are social and personal." But to get to the bottom of all this, I believe we must be careful not to overlook the connection that motivation and incentive have with economics and legislation.

The debates over standards in welfare policy have become political issues, in great part, precisely because of the government’s larger commitment to the poor. To de politicize the moral concern (which is not the same as dropping the moral concern) would require a disinvestment by the government in this area, along with a concomitant increase in the role of mediating institutions, most especially religious ones, in retrieving their responsibility and reasserting their moral force, too frequently muted by governmental intervention.

Professor Mead fails to see how crucial this approach is. He says, "It is one thing to say that a dose of market competition can cure collectivist lethargy or union featherbedding, quite another to say it can cause people to obey the law or stay married."

Here, Mr. Mead misses the point. It is not a dose of market competition that is required to cure anything, but a social and economic system that does not give incentives for people to act immorally, in socially destructive ways, and that places itself in competition with the very agencies capable of dealing with the deepest human needs.

Mr. Mead's proposal is a moderate one -- to "clean up" welfare. Perhaps mine is more radical -- to shift the provision of aid to those sectors of society most able and best equipped to provide the moral context and standard that will authentically aid the poor.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The Tragedy of American Compassion

By Marvin Olasky
Reviewed by Robert A. Sirico, CSP
July 22, 1992

No doubt you have had the experience of being stopped on the street by a somewhat inebriated panhandler. Whether or not you reached into your pocket and pulled out a dollar, perhaps the thought went through your mind, as it has through mine, "Maybe I'm not really doing this guy a favor by providing him with more money to buy cheap wine."

If you've experienced this sense of ambivalence in the face either of the panhandler, or the welfare system as a whole, and if you felt guilty about it, Marvin Olasky's book is for you.

The Tragedy of American Compassion is an excellent study of this frequently misunderstood topic, and will, one hopes, dispel the politically correct miasma in which so many well-intended people dwell with regard to assistance to those economically indigent. This book is particularly timely in light of the aftermath of the King verdict and the search for an appropriate social response.

Professor Olasky is not merely musing on these matters from some safe ivory tower. In 1990 he put on some old clothes and a cap and left his suburban home to roam the streets of Washington, D.C., and take a firsthand look at what the life of the poor and homeless is really like.

What he found concerned him, and prompted him to study the history of the compassion industry in the United States. His basic discovery was that the problem of poverty was much less a problem of getting material assistance to those in need, as much as it was a problem of establishing a human bonding, what he calls "affiliation," which in turn provides role models and incentives for those who want to find a way out of economic deprivation.

Dr. Olasky, a professor of  journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, provides us with a  readable yet thoroughly documented survey of the way in which poverty has been dealt with in  American history. His research demonstrates that the current dilemma is not fundamentally different from what we have confronted in our past, and his work ought to provide contemporary policy planners with a road map of the pitfalls to avoid.

As Dr. Olasky sees it, the failure of the welfare state lies in the subtle yet definite shift in an understanding of what compassion is.

True compassion, he reminds us, means to "suffer with" another. The bureaucratization of compassion, on the other hand, has reduced its meaning to "giving to" another, and Dr. Olasky concludes that this political compassion constitutes "the substitution of depersonalized dependence for true compassion." These differing definitions produce differing approaches to poverty, with differing effectiveness in ameliorating it.

Mr. Olasky documents the consequences of politicized compassion:
  • With the rise in governmental welfare programs comes a decline in individual giving to the usually more cost-effective, private charities;
  • Public assistance makes poor Americans more dependent, as more than 40% of  the poor themselves report;
  • The shift from seeing welfare programs as temporary charitable assistance for the "worthy poor" to seeing these programs as "entitlements" and "rights" has resulted in a permanent and ever-expanding pool of  applicants. 
  • With an increase in governmental programs for single mothers comes a decreased sense of marital obligation and the erosion of  the institution of marriage and the family.
Early in his work, Mr. Olasky explodes the myth that the United States awaited the New Deal to introduce well-funded and effective poverty fighting programs. By unearthing newspaper accounts, diaries, board minutes, and financial records, Mr. Olasky is able to reconstruct the fascinating history of agencies (mostly religious) that offered material assistance, as well as friendship, guidance, and spiritual support to unwed mothers, alcoholics, widows, orphans. immigrants, and a host of others in need, thereby touching the deeper human need represented by poverty.

I have two criticisms of this otherwise splendid work. The first is the recurring blemish of Mr. Olasky's use of the phrase "points of light." Perhaps if this phrase, poetic as it is, were not so closely associated with President Bush, whose administration, at least in part, appears enamored of the very welfare state so masterfully laid to waste in this particular text, it would not be so distracting.

My second criticism is somewhat more serious and has to do with what I consider a very dangerous recommendation made in the closing chapter of the book. Knowing that it is frequently the very religious inspiration of private charitable agencies that enables them to minister with authentic compassion to those in need, Dr. Olasky argues that such charities ought to be able to receive government grants without anti-religious strings attached.

This line of reasoning, however, overlooks the fact that the negative impact of governmentally funded programs is not solely due to their lack of spiritual orientation although this is certainly a major factor. The problem is deeper.

In addition to their secular bias, the very nature of tax-supported bureaucracies, with their lack of direct, non-political accountability to their funding source (i.e., the taxpayer),  results in a set of economic disincentives to actually get people out of poverty, as the whole of Mr. Olasky's book demonstrates. The last thing in the world we need is to set that deleterious dynamic into motion within the only institutions proven capable of attacking the very root of poverty.

The Tragedy of American Compassion demonstrates how bad charity drives out good charity and how the problem with current welfare policy is not that it is too lavish but that it is too stingy in what it offers to the poor.  It should be made required reading for anyone in the compassion business. For some, this may indeed be a mortification to see the received wisdom of the welfare establishment so cogently challenged.

Yet, this will be no more painful a penance than the unintended misery resulting from not meditating on and applying the truths of human nature Professor Olasky so finely retrieves and elucidates.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Sandinistas' Faithful Pilgrims

The Sandinistas' Faithful Pilgrims
by Robert A. Sirico
March 13, 1990

The story behind the story of the crushing defeat of the Sandinistas is as interesting as the upset itself. Why has this democratic victory surprised so many in the U.S., notably in the religious community?

The answer lies in part in the religious press, which all too frequently towed the Sandinista line imported by liberal pilgrims who had gone to Managua for confirmation of their faith in the revolution. Turn to the classified section of most U.S. religious periodicals. You will find evidence of a cottage industry dedicated to sending North Americans to Central America to see for themselves the degree of support for the revolution.

The pages of the National Catholic Reporter provide a good example. Rosemary Radford Ruether, a feminist theologian who writes frequently for the Reporter, returned from Nicaruaga breathless at the “riot of political liberty” she observed there (Feb. 23). “No need to worry about the names or ideas being overheard,” she reported. The Nicaraguans interviewed by the pollsters clearly didn’t share this opinion. Neither did the bishop I spend an evening with in Managua in January. As we sat talking in his rectory, he literally looked over his shoulder before mildly criticizing the government.

Based on this and other discussions I had during my stay in Nicaragua, it was no surprise to me that the Sandinistas were routed. When I returned to the U.S. I publicly predicted that if the elections were free and secret, as it appears they would be, the Sandinistas would be turned out because they did not enjoy general support. When I stated this at a meeting of people interested in Central America, some other veterans of Nicaraguan field trips disagreed. My contention was that they were na├»ve, if well-intentioned, pilgrims who went supporting the revolution, and failed to notice that somewhere along the line it had been co-opted. They replied that they were sure they had “been in touch with the people.” That was on Feb. 14.

This grand hypothesis was slain by one ugly little fact: the events of Feb. 25. To understand the depth of voters’ rejection of the Sandinistas is not enough to say that Violetta Chamorro received 55% of the vote. One must add to this number the 5% who voted for minor candidates and put on top of that an additional 10% or so for those who voted with their feet by leaving the country before the election and who were not allowed to vote by absentee ballot. Consider also that, given the context of the fear that distorted the polls, of the 40% who did vote for the Sandinistas, a portion of that number could be considered soft, especially where people worked for the government.

This all amounts to an overwhelming rejection. Yet everyone was so surprised: the media, the pollsters, the religious community and the Sandinistas.

Even the U.S. administration, days before the election, began to prepare for a Sandinista victory. An awkward question thus arises: If the administration seriously thought the Sandinistas were popular enough to survive a free vote, why did it maintain trade sanctions and support the Contras?

Conservatives too have set themselves up for criticism. While supporting an economic embargo against Nicaragua in the hope of bringing pressure to bear on the government for a more open and free society, they also opposed sanctions against South Africa arguing (correctly, I believe) that an economic embargo would hurt the very people it is designed to help.

It is true that the Contra war and the economic boycott harmed the Nicaraguan economy. Unfortunately this allows the Sandinistas to excuse their mismanagement of the economy and obscure the fundamental reason for their rejection. Nicaraguans rejected them for the same reason Eastern Europeans rejected communist regimes: The Sandinistas socialized the economy, systematically drove out enterprise, and curtailed civil liberties. They created a hostile environment for the only mechanism known to produce wealth: the free market. This did not harm just big landowning oligarchs whose holdings were questionable even from a capitalistic frame of reference. Small-businessmen, professionals, and a host of would-be entrepreneurs were driven out as well.

The healing of Nicaragua is only just commencing. Much must be done to create a climate of liberty and stability. One hopes that this will be done without control from outside powers. It is clear, however, that these war-torn, noble and hospitable people have, like their Eastern European counterparts, taken the first fledging steps in this direction.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Video: ‘Fighting Poverty: We’ve Been Doing it All Wrong’

Yahoo! Finance’s Stock Analyst, Kevin Chupka, recently interviewed Rev. Robert Sirico about the “Cure for Income Inequality” and the work of PovertyCure. Chupka begins by stating that “close to half the planet lives on less than $2 dollars a day” and that an alarming number of Americans are living below the poverty line. He then states that despite all the good intentions, decades of charitable giving hasn’t done much to end this problem. Chupka and Sirico discuss PovertyCure’s mission to “challenge the status quo and champion the creative potential of the human person;” looking for ways to engage the poorest of the poor in trade rather than simply giving them money and hoping for the best.
Read ‘Fighting poverty: We’ve been doing it all wrong.’ at Yahoo! Finance.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Sainthood Will Seal Two Pope's Places in History

On April 27, the Christian world will change. The largest Christian denomination on earth, the Catholic Church, will commit itself irrevocably to the legacy of two men who helped to reform it — Pope John XXIII and Pope John Paul II — by proclaiming them saints.

John XXIII was the man who stunned his advisers by summoning the Second Vatican Council, a meeting of bishops from around the world with the mission of re-proclaiming the truth of the Gospel, stripped of historical accretions that tied the church to the dead world of 19th-century monarchies out of fear of revolutions.

At the heart of that council was the Church’s embrace of religious liberty for all believers of every faith — a life-and-death issue to the hundreds of millions of Christians then imprisoned by communism.

One of the architects of that council was a bishop who lived in the captive nation of Poland, Karol Wotyjla. He would go on, of course, to serve as Pope John Paul II and play a key role in dismantling the Soviet empire and bringing religious freedom to half a continent.

Now their roles as prophetic preachers of the Gospel will be sealed in the eyes of history by their successor, Pope Francis.

Pope Francis has been pope just over one year, and one interesting way to look at each of these men is to observe the commentaries on the first year of each pontificate and observe how remarkably similar the reactions are: They were all unlikely men who came to a papal conclave planning to vote for another man, thinking they would soon return to their respective dioceses; two of the three from outside Italy and each, in his own way, winning the hearts of the people immediately by a sense that he would be his own person, personable, accessible, and close to the people.

Will Francis change the church in as profound a way as the men whom he recognizes this week? Only time will tell, but it seems to me unlikely. There are few remaining "inessential" issues where the church really does need to catch up with the times. Maybe a few more bishops will sell their palaces and go live among the people. No doubt the views of the vast and growing church in the developing world will find more of a voice in papal statements on economics and politics, counterbalancing the perspectives of older but shrinking churches in places like Germany and Italy.

But on the core issues that exercise the secular media, the church’s insistence on faithfulness to human dignity, marital fidelity, and the sanctity of life, nothing will change, because it cannot.

No pope has the authority to revoke or revise the moral law that is "written on the human heart." His role is simply to proclaim it. And in a world that desperately wishes not to listen, that’s a hard enough job.

All Christians should wish Pope Francis well, as a voice that speaks out against the fallenness of our hearts and the shallowness of our culture, pointing our eyes ever backward to the words and deeds of an itinerant preacher from Nazareth.

This article originally appeared on

Friday, March 28, 2014

Rev. Sirico on President Obama’s Meeting with Pope Francis

In this short talk, Rev. Robert A. Sirico, co-founder and president of the Acton Institute, offers some general observations about the recent meeting between President Barack Obama and Pope Francis at the Vatican.  Rev. Sirico also reflects on the differences in philosophy that make a Presidential/Papal alliance, such as what occurred during the time of Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, unlikely.