Renewing American Compassion
by Marvin Olasky
Free Press. 201 pp. $21.00
In a now-classic essay that appeared in these pages a quarter-century ago, Nathan Glazer observed that there were but two distinctive approaches to social policy: the liberal and the radical.1 In the liberal view, government was an engine for ameliorating social problems; in the radical view, nothing could be accomplished unless and until society itself were completely transformed. As for conservatives, they, said Glazer, essentially shared the liberal view, though they were inclined to be more cautious in deploying government power.
Today a curious realignment appears to be under way. A generation of conservative scholarship has discredited and undermined faith in the efficacy of most government social programs. Meanwhile, a varied group of public figures, writers, clergymen, academics, and denizens of think-tanks has developed its own version of conservative social policy, one that, ironically, calls for nothing less than a radical change in how Americans should think about and behave toward the poor.
Foremost among this group is Marvin Olasky, a professor of journalism at the University of Texas. His 1992 book, The Tragedy of American Compassion, went largely unnoticed for two years until it appeared on reading lists handed out to freshmen Congressmen (and anyone else who asked) by the newly elected Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich. Since then, Olasky has become a much-sought-after speaker and conference-goer; his views are cited with regularity and respect in the press; and together with the writer Arianna Huffington, he has founded a center to promote his vision of “effective compassion.” His new book, Renewing American Compassion, for which Gingrich has provided a foreword, partly recapitulates material presented in his earlier work and partly attempts to lay out a plan for setting his new policy in motion.
Olasky’s ideas are rooted in the experience of such 19th-century social reformers as Charles Loring Brace and Josephine Shaw Lowell, and groups like the Charity Organization Societies and a host of urban missions. Their approach entailed intensive personal involvement with the needy by large numbers of volunteers, many of whom were motivated by (and sought to convey and instill) religious beliefs. A kind of “tough love” was practiced as well; those who could do so were expected to work, while those who refused to free themselves from the vices that had laid them low were shunned.
These 19th-century reformers aimed, in short, not merely to relieve distress but more importantly to enter into and change the lives of the poor. In the words of the journalist Jacob Riis, cited by Olasky, such charitable activities had beneficial effects on both the well-to-do and the poor, who “have been brought closer together, in an everyday companionship that cannot but be productive of the best results, to the one who gives no less than to the one who receives.”
What subsequently tore the two parties asunder was, in Olasky’s view, the “welfare state.” As newly fashionable theories came to locate the causes of poverty in social and economic circumstances rather than in individual failings, government began to take on increasing responsibility for the needy. The ties between the better-off and the disadvantaged were thereby loosened; charity grew less discriminating; and reliance on faith-based organizations waned. In the end, compassion itself acquired a bad name, as it came to be measured by how much money—often, someone else’s—one was prepared to give to the poor, rather than by a willingness to engage oneself directly in their lives. The dismal results are all around us today.
If, as Olasky contends, the condition in which the needy live today has been caused not by too little sympathy but by too much of the wrong kind, it follows that the key to a more successful policy is to “renew” the older form of compassion. To that end, Olasky and other like-minded conservatives—such as Senator Dan Coats of Indiana—advocate a number of measures, from phasing out existing government-run social programs to replacing the “safety net” with “trampolines,” like school vouchers, that will help the needy spring up the ladder of success. They also favor plans permitting taxpayers to direct their money and effort to charities that serve the poor, rather than to government. In one such plan, discussed in this book, up to $2,500 could be credited against a person’s state-tax bill for contributions of time or money equaling or exceeding $3,000.
But, writes Olasky, all such measures, though necessary, are not by themselves sufficient. “[T]o raise high the standard of American compassion,” what is required is personal change “in each individual soul.” Only then will we “make real progress toward reducing some of our most serious social pathologies.”
After so many years of failed experimentation, there is undeniable appeal in the notion that becoming involved in the lives of the poor will help solve our problems. Aside from the simplicity of the idea, there is evidence, albeit largely anecdotal, that contemporary versions of Victorian-era charities can make a significant difference. And there is even evidence that the public has become more willing to take on the burdens of helping: charitable giving and volunteering have gone up remarkably during the past fifteen years. Yet despite these trends, many questions remain unanswered about Olasky’s brand of conservative social policy.
For one thing, will the measures he advocates produce the boon he intends? Americans now contribute over $100 billion per year to charities of all sorts; rather than stimulating new giving, a large portion of the proposed new tax credits might end up being applied simply to gifts already being made. And even if such credits did produce a substantial increase in giving, that would not necessarily spell a heightened personal commitment to philanthropic activity, since the tax credit would allow contributors to make gifts at practically no cost. Moreover, as donors would have little incentive to ensure that their funds were being used wisely, Olasky’s scheme might encourage chicanery and fraud, thereby triggering government regulation as well—which would get us back where we started.
There is also a deeper problem with Olasky’s approach. Notwithstanding all the heartwarming stories of private groups that have reclaimed portions of an inner city or helped alcoholics and drug addicts to stay clean, the ability of American charities to deal successfully with the nation’s massive social problems is still unproved. To be sure, some private institutions—inner-city parochial schools, for example—do seem capable of providing better services than public ones (though even this is debated among experts). But it is worth remembering that many of the programs associated with the failed “war on poverty” were themselves created and implemented by precisely the kinds of private organizations that stand to benefit from new tax breaks. While the failures of the war on poverty are not entirely to be laid at their doorstep, America’s charities show little sign that they are brimming with fresh ideas or that, if given greater opportunities (and more money), they would rise to the challenge.
When government moved into the territory previously occupied by private social-welfare groups, it did so because they were having difficulties coping with large-scale demands for their services. As Olasky himself noted in his earlier book, duplication of effort, inefficiency, and lack of communication prompted charity leaders themselves to call for public or quasi-public agencies to coordinate their efforts. What happened next was well described by Glazer 25 years ago: public policy grew to fill the gap left by traditional community organizations; in the process, it weakened them as well. Yet if, today, the reinvigoration called for by the new conservative social policy is to succeed, a way will still have to be found of surmounting the inevitable limits of privately-run social policy.
So, too, with today’s moral climate. To Charles Loring Brace, Josephine Shaw Lowell, and their followers—as well as to most of those they tried to save—vice and dependency were unequivocally wrong, and in need of extirpation. Today, among the clergy no less than among social workers, among volunteers no less than among professionals, such views are apt to be decried as simplistic and judgmental, and among many of the needy as insufficiently sympathetic. While the older moral vision has by no means vanished (and in some parts of society is actually resurgent), one may question the likelihood of our recovering the convictions of the 19th-century reformers who inspire Olasky, not to mention the likelihood of our inculcating these convictions in the society at large.
Essentially, what Olasky is calling for would require a moral, cultural, and spiritual revolution. Such a revolution may be desirable on several grounds, but like the wholesale restructuring of the economy once called for by radical social critics of the Left, it is more a utopian vision than a practical program. American society would undoubtedly be improved if more people showed old-fashioned compassion toward the needy instead of relying on government to provide relief. But they do not. The challenge we face in reforming social policy is that the world is as it is, and people—the well-to-do and the poor alike—are not what we might wish them to be. Wherever we end up, we have to start from there.
1 “The Limits of Social Policy,” September 1971.