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.

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