Helping Hands


The Tragedy of American Compassion, by Marvin Olasky, Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 233 pages, $21.95

Most books about welfare in America begin with one of two premises. For the last 75 years, advocates of government-funded welfare have largely argued that federal welfare programs are a universal entitlement and that efforts to limit aid to those who cannot work are imposing Eurocentric values upon the defenseless poor.

On the other hand, foes of welfare often use arguments, derived from Social Darwinism, that the poor who cannot lift themselves up the income ladder should not receive any handouts at all. In this view, recipients of welfare largely comprise cheats, bums, parasites, "second-handers," and so forth, who steal from the successful. For example, Robert Sheaffer, in Resentment Against Achievement, sees people in poverty as largely having "no obligation to support themselves. They know that some soft-hearted person who will be moved by their self-made plight can always be found."

But what if neither the welfarists nor the antiwelfarists understand the problem? What if the best way to lift people out of poverty was found over a century ago-and forgotten?

That's the provocative thesis of Marvin Olasky, professor of journalism at the University of Texas. In his latest book, Olasky looks at how Americans have treated the poor during the last 200 years. He contends that the best way to end poverty isn't to be found in the think tanks or in the welfare agencies. It is "sitting on pages of old magazines and reports buried deep in the stacks of the Library of Congress."

The Tragedy of American Compassion is actually two books stitched together. In the first half of his book, Olasky describes how Americans helped the poor in the 19th century; the second half then describes how these voluntary organizations were gradually supplanted by the welfare state and by professional charities.

The first half is the better part of the book, as Olasky spends a good deal of time showing how Victorian social reformers tried to aid the poor. Most successful programs used two strategies. First, they insisted that the poor who could work do useful labor. Many charities asked that people showing up at their doorstep chop wood or sew clothes before they were offered a meal. This work test was given not because of stinginess but to see if a destitute person was willing to take action to improve his or her life.

The charity leaders of the 19th century also realized that offering the poor unrestricted aid did more harm than good, by making poor people addicted to handouts. "Dolegiving and almsgiving," wrote Buffalo's Josephine Shaw Lowell in 1884, "do break down independence, do destroy energy, do undermine character."

Second, charities tried to limit the number of people each worker served; charities had learned from long experience that poverty fighters could best succeed if they dealt with a small number of people whom they knew personally. "A small number of families, from three to five, are enough to exhaust all the time, attention, and friendly care which one visitor has," the Philadelphia Society for Organizing Charitable Relief noted in an 1883 report.

But if these charities did such a good job at aiding the poor, why didn't the Victorian model of aiding the poor survive into the 20th century?

Here is where Olasky is at his weakest. He is very good at showing how effective private charity was a century ago; his descriptions of the growth of the welfare state in the New Deal and the Great Society are richly detailed. But Olasky's explanations of why the Progressives were able to transform the charity movement are weak and unconvincing.

In 1900, charities tended to be primarily composed of volunteers who devoted themselves to helping others. By 1930, these same organizations were largely made up of professional social workers who campaigned for government aid and saw volunteers as amateurs whose best use was to type letters and keep files, thus ensuring that few Americans were given the chance to help the poor directly.

Olasky devotes only 16 pages to this transitional period; he should have spent more time on the subject. It would be interesting to learn more about how the Social Gospel transformed mainline Protestant attitudes toward charity or what the settlement house movement did to teach its veterans (such as Frances Perkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor, and top Roosevelt aide Harry Hopkins) the importance of government welfare. It might also be interesting to learn what the more successful charities (such as the Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago or the Central Union Mission in Washington, D.C.) did to survive when their competitors were nationalized.

Ultimately, Olasky does persuade the reader that to end poverty, something more must be done than simply increasing (or reducing) the federal welfare budget. What the Victorians knew that we do not is that the poor are something more than beasts who should be pacified by the narcotic of limitless aid. "Governmental welfare programs should be fought not because they are too expensive," Olasky concludes, "but because they are inevitably too stingy in what is really important, treating people as people and not animals."

We should all care for those who need our help. But such aid is something more than simply giving quarters to homeless people whom we may never meet again or doling out meals in a soup line that treats recipients as faceless, interchangeable, and forgettable. The Tragedy of American Compassion's greatest achievement is that it shows how aid should be provided and gives ample evidence that private, voluntary aid did a great deal to help people whom we would now consider part of the permanent "underclass."

The American welfare state is intellectually exhausted, surviving, as are most government programs, on the inertia of the Democratic Congress. Contending that welfare should be abolished has done little to change the nature or structure of these programs. Marvin Olasky's arguments may prove to be the ones that ultimately ensure that private welfare programs can once again do a better job in helping the poor than their massively subsidized government counterparts.

Contributing Editor Martin Morse Wooster is a writer, editor, and researcher living in Silver Springs, Maryland.