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Renewing American Compassion

We hardly need another polemic about the failure of America’s “war on poverty.” After decades of bitter wrangling and torpid inaction, there is at last a broad consensus that the welfare system is a cure no less malignant than the disease it was intended to remedy. Liberals and conservatives, politicians and program administrators, social workers and taxpayers have all been forced to acknowledge that the poor are not best served by our current lumbering and impersonal entitlement bureaucracy. They never have been. They never will be. On this, we now all agree.

Thankfully, Marvin Olasky recognizes this remarkable fact and does not belabor the obvious. His book Renewing American Compassion is instead a survey and evaluation of contemporary poverty relief efforts—both privately-funded charitable enterprises and state-funded welfare reform programs. With a reporter’s eye, an historian’s insight, and an advocate’s passion, he details precisely what are and what are not viable alternatives to welfare. Given the spate of program recommendations and policy proposals currently crowding state and federal legislative agendas, his evaluation is both timely and perspicacious.

Throughout the history of American compassion, he argues, seven principles have always been central to effective relief efforts. Programs that have been grounded in these common sense principles have had solid success in transforming poverty into productivity. Programs that ignored them failed.

The first principle is what Olasky calls “affiliation.” If the poor are to be equipped with the tools of self-reliance and initiative, they must first restore family ties and community connections that have been sundered by privation and irresponsibility. Promiscuous philanthropy does little to solve the long-term dilemmas of social disintegration. It is little surprise then that programs that emphasize personal accountability, family responsibility, and community cooperation are much more likely to succeed than programs that simply dispense aid as sheer entitlements.

The second principle Olasky identifies is “bonding.” Effective programs make a conscious effort to maintain personal intimacy. They are programs where help is dispensed one-on-one, and where mentoring, discipleship, and long-term commitment is encouraged. Instead of reducing the recipients of aid to mere numbers or cases, they are treated as individuals.

His third principle is “categorization.” According to Olasky, the individualized approach to effective compassion recognizes that different problems need to be treated differently. There are no cookie-cutter programs when it comes to helping people put their lives back together. There are no universal templates and no boiler plates. No single model or initiative or reform is sufficient to tackle the widely varied dilemmas of the poor.

“Discernment” is Olasky’s fourth principle. Effective programs of compassion are innately discriminatory. Though they reject subjective and preferential prejudice, they do differentiate between those who really desire to improve their lot in life and those who are simply looking for a free lunch. Barriers against fraud are necessary if resources are to be utilized with any measure of effectiveness. But they are also necessary to ensure that recipients are not forced to trade their dignity for a five pound block of cheese.

“Employment” is the fifth principle. According to Olasky, programs of compassion that demand work and commitment as a prerequisite for assistance are far more effective than those that do not. It seems all too obvious: If individuals are paid not to work, the blight of long-term unemployment and chronic dependence will only intensify. Compassion must never subsidize idleness and irresponsibility.

Olasky’s sixth principle of effective compassion is “freedom.” Regulations upon free enterprise generally do not protect the poor. Instead, they create barriers to compassion. The harder the government makes it to hire at-risk individuals, the harder it will be for the business community to help the poor. Compassion is most effective when relief programs are afforded flexibility to work with employers to come up with creative ways for the needy to enter the job market.

Finally, Olasky asserts that effective compassion is rooted in “faith.” A forthright reliance on the Creator and His good providence is an essential element in charitable relief. The spiritual dimension is an essential aspect of rebuilding shattered lives, restoring broken homes, and revitalizing devastated communities. There is simply no replacement.

Federal welfare programs were doomed to failure from the start precisely because they ignored the dumb certainties of experience—indeed, they did not merely abandon one or two of these time-tested principles, but all of them. Interestingly, it seems that many, if not most, of the current efforts at state-funded welfare reform continue to make the same deleterious mistake. According to Olasky, the only substantial hope for the renewal of American compassion lies in the private sector—where it has historically been most effective anyway.

The real contribution of Olasky’s book is not only that he provides a deft evaluation of current poverty-relief efforts and a cogent analysis of the current political climate, but that he effectively encourages ordinary citizens to roll up their sleeves and get to work in their communities. He makes it clear that when they begin to apply the simple principles of compassion he has identified, they can make an enormous difference in the lives of the needy all around them—and in the process, they can make the debate over welfare reform moot.

His is no polemic. Indeed, Olasky has issued a call for a new kind of modern-day grassroots heroism. And it is a call that we should all best hear and heed.