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American Compassion


We have had destitute people since the early years of the country, and their numbers have grown as the population has grown. We have always had people whose lives were threatened or even ruined by drugs and alcohol abuse. We have always had the homeless. We have always had the prostitutes. As long as there have been destitute people, there have been others who have been concerned about the problem. These are the constants.

The problems of destitution and deprivation were major issues in the 19th century. The early attempts at dealing with the destitute population most often were made by people who themselves had overcome poverty or personal failings. Guided by their own experience, a few of those who had recovered went on to administer to others. A common belief among them was that they and others were responsible for their own destiny.

In his book The Tragedy of American Compassion (1992), Marvin Olasky provides examples to prove this point. One example is that of Charles Brace, who found lodging for New York’s orphans. In these houses, Brace stifled the impulse to offer immediate material help and instead gave clothes and other forms of material help as rewards for conduct, punctuality, and industry. Another example is that of Jerry McAuley, who established the Water Street mission in 1872. This mission and McCauley’s work inspired the founding of other missions. The able-bodied men who came to the missions were put to work chopping wood or doing other tasks to earn their meals and lodging.

In the 19th century, there was a strong stigma against all welfare, public and private. There was much discussion about the dangers of being too generous with charity. The Society for the Prevention of Pauperism in New York listed ten causes of pauperism. The first three were ignorance, idleness, and intemperance. Other causes were mostly related to personal failings. The tenth was “charities that gave away money too freely.”

It was a widespread belief that able-bodied people should not be given anything more than the bare necessities to get them by a troubled moment. Material help should be given sparingly and only after a personal examination of each case. In 1835, many of the charities in Boston acted on the principle that it was “disgraceful to depend on almsgiving if the capacity for support was still retained.”

Guided by the culture of the day, the early efforts were small-scale, personal involvement rather than large-scale, administered relief. That culture was defined in the “seven seals of good philanthropic practice.” These elements were: affiliation, bonding, categorization, discernment, employment, freedom, and God. Affiliation, bonding, and God represented the personal involvement to address the spiritual needs of the afflicted. Categorization and discernment had to do with the classification of the need and the appropriate assistance. Employment and freedom were references to the importance of work and the “job freedom” that allowed struggling individuals and families a means of providing for themselves.

The first wave of attacks against this culture came in the mid-19th century, led by Horace Greeley (founder of the New York Tribune ), who argued that poverty should be a responsibility of the community and not of the individual. Greeley’s “Social Gospel” placed communal living and material redistribution at the center of Christianity. The second wave of attacks on the old culture came with the excitement and optimism that ushered in the 20th century. Prosperity had arrived in full bloom, and advocates of government welfare argued that we could now afford redistribution of wealth to the needy. The final blow came with the passage of the New Deal welfare programs that were presented as the solution to the unemployment that came with the Great Depression.

Generous but impersonal programs devoid of religious content came into being. For a time, the stigma against handouts remained. Even during the Depression, only a small percentage of those eligible for government handouts applied for assistance. Most made due with the help of family and friends, however meager it was.

By the 1960s, the emphasis had completely shifted from spiritual challenge to material concern. The programs were no longer means-tested through personal involvement. So, it was no surprise to some commentators of the day that the recipients began viewing the welfare payments as entitlements. Affiliation, bonding, and the like were no longer required elements of a charitable effort. And by the 1970s, indiscriminate payments characterized the programs.

The able-bodied poor had gained an independence from the screening rigors of early private-sector programs but at the cost of becoming dependent on the government. The number of recipients in the 20th century exploded not so much because of the Great Depression but as a result of undermining the earlier culture of limiting charity to the truly needy — a culture that restrained both the giver and the recipient.

Today, no one disputes that the New Deal welfare programs have failed. For the most part, they failed for two reasons. First, the government programs administer to the material needs of the recipients and do too little to address the spiritual needs. Second, the programs are void of the personal involvement that is so critical to the recovery and rehabilitation of people who are troubled. The government programs operate with too little regard for these key elements and have had a bad influence on the programs supported by private charity. All of them now need to be scrapped.

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    Mr. Pearson, a Freedom Daily reader, is a senior consultant with the Cato Institute and resides in Wichita, Kansas.