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 government.

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 Clutch Plague, 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.


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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 congregations.

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 income.

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.

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