Delusions of Charity


  • Marvin Olasky, The Tragedy of American Compassion
    (Regnery Publishing, 1992).

  • Lester M. Salamon, Partners in Public Service: Government-Nonprofit Relations
    in the Modern Welfare State

    (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).

There is such a thing as reforming welfare, and there is such a thing as
cutting spending on welfare. It is fortunate, hold the Republicans who control
Congress, that the two are synonymous. The politically appealing belief that
cutting welfare will improve life for the poor rests upon two long-held
conservative propositions: that most of the welfare poor are jobless because
they would rather eat and not work than eat and work; and that, if welfare is
scaled back or eliminated, private charity will fill in at least as well as

One might notice a certain contradiction here. If the problem is that we give
our poor so much that it destroys any incentive to find work, then having
private charities sign the check instead of government won't help. The
conservative answer, the glue that holds the two propositions together, is that
charity won't merely fill government's shoes, it will do better. Private
charity, welfare cutters claim, will swoop in after years of being supplanted
by welfare, cut down on abuse, and apply the sort of personalized "tough love"
that government bureaucrats can't provide. The only role for government is to
get out of the way.

This is the thrust of The Tragedy of American Compassion, by Marvin
Olasky, a University of Texas journalism professor now on leave at the Progress
and Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank closely associated with Newt
Gingrich. Originally published in 1992, the book was hastily reprinted in 1995
after Gingrich endorsed it in several major speeches as the blueprint for
replacing welfare. The cover now features a prominent gold star advertising
that the book is "Recommended by Newt Gingrich." (Perhaps one day all books
will say whether or not they are recommended by Gingrich. Films could use a
similar arrangement with Bob Dole.)

The Tragedy of American Compassion turns upside down conventional
notions of the history of charity and welfare. According to Olasky, our society
had reached its apex of compassion well before the turn of the century. He
cites, for example, the record of a seventeenth-century charitable society that
"opened the bowels of our compassion"--presumably, this is intended as a
positive metaphor--to a crippled widow. But this sort of aid was always denied
to those who refused to work or were otherwise deemed morally unsuitable.

Paradoxically, the author argues, the decline began during the Progressive Era,
when the middle and upper classes first became widely aroused to the plight of
the urban poor. Olasky sees much good in this era but also the beginning of
large-scale solutions that indiscriminately dispense aid without addressing the
moral failures that, in his view, made people poor in the first place. He
insists that, except during the Great Depression, poverty has nearly always
been due to character flaws on the part of the poor. Handouts will only
reinforce this behavior. Olasky takes this position to its reductio ad absurdum
himself, approvingly citing Andrew Johnson's opposition to government programs
to aid newly freed slaves after the Civil War.

Olasky criticizes government involvement in welfare on several grounds. First,
while volunteers historically dispensed aid personally, with an eye toward its
impact upon the recipient, government invariably depersonalizes the process.
Second, it does not emphasize Christian religious conversion, which he calls
"the key to poverty fighting." (The author complains that, when posing as
homeless several years ago, he was commonly offered food but never given a
Bible.) Finally, government pushes out private charity. The advent of
professional social workers, he argues, has elbowed out full-time volunteers.

The critique is not limited to government. "Too many private charities," he
complains, "dispense aid indiscriminately and thus provide, instead of points
of light, alternative shades of darkness."

Even if we are to accept Olasky's image of the golden past, he provides no good
reason to suppose that those old solutions would work today. Indeed, he makes
no mention whatsoever of the social and economic changes that account for most
of the developments he bemoans.

Olasky, for example, observes that in early America "the able- bodied could
readily find jobs in a growing agricultural economy." Those who didn't work
were lazy, drunk, or the like. Yet he assumes that this is no less true today,
even though industrialization and growth in productivity (not to mention the
business cycle) make it at least unlikely that everyone will be employed all
the time.

Likewise, the author attributes the decline in personal attention given to the
poor--a trend he infers completely from anecdotal evidence--to progressive
charity and welfare. Olasky quotes Alexis de Tocqueville as saying that
Americans have "compassion for the sufferings of one another when they are
brought together by easy and frequent intercourse." But this rarely happens
anymore. Inequalities of wealth generated by the Gilded Age a hundred years ago
and suburbanization after World War II have segregated Americans by
economic class. Perhaps Olasky's prescription of each community taking care of
its own made sense 200 years ago, but it's hardly practical to suppose that
Beverly Hills and South-Central Los Angeles will each tend to their own poor.
In fact, there are programs, such as VISTA and City Year, that bring the better
off into close contact with the poor, but Olasky ignores them completely.

Even more bizarre is the author's denigration of professional social work. Very
few people are available for volunteer charity work, particularly as increasing
numbers of middle- and upper-class women have entered the world of work.
Perhaps it's true that we give less personal attention to the poor today, but
that's why we have social workers. Olasky mistakes the cure for the disease.

Subscribe to The American Prospect


So what do we do about this decline in charity? Perhaps, for Olasky and the
conservatives who have embraced his book, the first step is admitting that we
really don't have a problem. In Partners in Public Service:
Government-Nonprofit Relations in the Modern Welfare State
, Lester M.
Salamon of Johns Hopkins University notes that between 1950 and 1980 "a massive
increase took place in the size and scope of America's nonprofit sector."
Moreover, he finds that the expansion of the welfare state and nonprofit sector
were causally related: "By the late 1970s, in fact, the private nonprofit
sector had become the principle vehicle for the delivery of government-financed
human services, and government had, correspondingly, become the principle
source of nonprofit human service agency finance."

Olasky, in other words, has it backwards. Public generosity aids private
generosity, and vice versa. And rather than liberating charity, the Republican
welfare plan is likely to cripple it.

Charity has never been well suited to providing a basic safety net for the
poor. Salamon classifies four basic failures of private philanthropy in this
regard: It is insufficient, particularistic, paternalistic, and amateur. Olasky
may consider paternalism a virtue rather than a weakness, but he fails to
address the inherent weakness of vesting all control of the resources spent on
the poor with the wealthier Americans who donate to private charity. Olasky is
correct that this power enables private charities to emphasize religion more
than welfare or government-aided charity, but it is simply inconsistent with
our nation's political traditions to insist as public policy that the poor's
receipt of aid be contingent upon their acceptance of religious guidance.

Only a tiny share of charitable contributions made to nonprofits is devoted to
helping the less fortunate. The rest goes to services used by the donors
themselves. More than 85 percent of contributions, even to churches, are
channeled into administrative and maintenance costs. Despite Olasky's faith in
the power of churches to handle welfare, they rarely minister outside their

Is this likely to change if the welfare state is pared back? Obviously, this is
a crucial question, but the Republicans have made no serious effort to predict
the impact of their experiment. Conservative apologists for stripping the
welfare state argue that the impulse to help the poor through welfare can be
divorced from the impulse to help them through charity. The facts,
unfortunately, do not cooperate with this fantasy. Communities less generous in
their state and local public-sector assistance for the poor are also less
generous in their charitable contributions. In Olasky's home state of Texas, to
take one example, donations per employee to United Way campaigns in the late
1980s were $19 in Austin, $38 in Dallas, $39 in Fort Worth, $38 in Houston, and
$41 in San Antonio. In comparison, employees in Cincinnati gave $60, in
Cleveland $69, and in Columbus $59. The results are similar for the national
disease campaigns and fundraisers for public radio and television. The pattern
holds true across the country, even taking into account poverty rates and

Olasky's solution to the welfare problem, at least nominally, has two parts: We
must stop giving money to the poor and instead grant them personal attention.
But his book is not packaged as a call for right-thinking Christians to flock to
this country's pockets of poverty. Certainly, this is not the message that
Gingrich seems to have taken from it. Instead, it legitimatizes for the stingy
a moral reason to turn their backs on the poor. It turns out, Olasky and his
supporters find, that the underprivileged are better off if we keep our money.
No wonder the message is so popular.

You need to be logged in to comment.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)