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Renewing American Compassion: How Compassion for the Needy Can Turn Ordinary Citizens into Heroes
By Marvin Olasky
Free Press, 201 pages, $21

As I write this, I am unsettled by thoughts of a boy named Kenneth, a mom named Tina, and a monstrous bureaucracy called HUD. In Oak Ridge Gardens, a low-income neighborhood targeted by my church’s urban outreach ministry, there lives eight-year-old Kenneth, son of a crack-addicted mom. He has already seen such unspeakable things that he boasted to me, “I’m going to do it with my girlfriend and hurt her real bad.” In the neighborhood, I’ll see the thirty-year-old Tina, wolfing her lunch between the morning and afternoon jobs she works to support three children. I’ll also wrestle with the strictures of HUD”it put up some of the money for the housing project and so, technically, our faith-based family center isn’t permitted there.

These encounters at Oak Ridge Gardens reveal the importance and timeliness of Marvin Olasky’s Renewing American Compassion . The book’s strength lies in its practical advice on how to tear down obstacles to private charities (like our church’s current struggle with HUD) and its sensible counsel on the kind of tough-minded compassion needed by people like Kenneth’s mom. The book’s weakness lies in its failure to say enough about how to help the strivers in the ghetto, like Tina.

Renewing American Compassion is the sequel to The Tragedy of American Compassion , Olasky’s historical account of private charitable activity in the United States in the nineteenth century. In three chapters of the new book, Olasky summarizes the key themes from the earlier volume. He repeats his description of the ways bad charity (the Great Society) drove out good charity (religiously based groups): It reinterpreted the causes of poverty as exclusively material and environmental; its bureaucracy tried to reach ever-larger numbers of poor people with a decreasingly personal strategy for fighting poverty; it dismissed the role of volunteers in favor of professional social workers; and it removed the incentives for work, saving, and marriage. Renewing American Compassion also revisits the basic principles of effective compassion outlined in Tragedy . Then Olasky offers vignettes of groups that put effective compassion into action and proposes a variety of policy initiatives that would both remove the obstacles that hinder Good Samaritans and promote a reinvigorated initiative by ordinary Americans to alleviate the suffering of their less-fortunate fellows.

Olasky’s thesis is that effective compassion”that is, service that helps people to transform their lives”is challenging, personal, and spiritual. He supports his argument with numerous persuasive anecdotes about individuals who have walked out of the underclass with the help of faith-based, grassroots groups that practice “hard-headed, soft-hearted” compassion. My own research in several inner cities over the past two years confirms Olasky’s assertions. Permanent change happens when individuals are given personal attention, emotional support, and moral challenge and are held accountable for their actions.

Today, most participants in the debate about welfare reform”at least those outside the realms of the ACLU and the Children’s Defense Fund”agree with Olasky that the government has not and cannot offer this kind of effective compassion, and that consequently we must enlarge the role private charities play in the lives of the underclass. As Olasky notes, some governmental officials are more open today to the proposition that faith-based groups secure better results than do state agencies working with the poor. Politicians in Mississippi, Michigan, and Virginia have gone so far as to plead for the churches’ help in reducing the welfare rolls. Given this growing consensus, what’s provocative about Renewing American Compassion is not that it argues for returning social welfare functions to civil society, but that it dares to offer specific and useful proposals for how this might happen.

Olasky’s goal is to “push open the debate” over welfare reform by offering some legislative possibilities. He is most enthusiastic about a tax-credit scheme by which individuals could contribute directly to poverty-fighting organizations and then have their federal tax burden decreased accordingly. This proposal would allow even non-itemizers this deduction and could significantly multiply the resources of grassroots groups. Uncle Sam’s receipts would decrease, but that’s the idea: Olasky wants the government to abandon its business of providing for the general welfare and to redirect its energies toward promoting the general welfare by enabling and equipping civil society.

I fully support the tax-credit idea. But Olasky’s explanation of how the scheme would work needs one addition to help persuade skeptics. Our tax money goes for more than social services; we’re also paying for roads, research, and the national defense. Social welfare spending constitutes a small part of the federal budget, but the decrease in tax revenues that would ensue from this proposal appears rather large. While Olasky generally does a good job of anticipating (and answering) potential objections to his proposals, he needs to explain how the tax-credit scheme can accomplish its goals without jeopardizing other governmental services.

Olasky also describes, but is less enthusiastic about, such current proposals as Senator John Ashcroft’s attempts to provide legal protection to religiously based groups that wish to receive federal monies. Ashcroft’s bill allows faith-based groups to compete on an equal footing with secular nonprofit organizations for governmental grants to support social-welfare activities, and it explicitly ensures these groups the right to conduct their outreach without compromising their spiritual character. A clause in the bill prohibits faith-based groups from using governmental money to “proselytize,” though, and Olasky fears that this endangers the effective heart of their ministry.

Other politicians want to terminate cash assistance and instead provide poor people with vouchers that could be “redeemed” for social services at private organizations. Olasky adds a dose of realism to this generally good idea. “Some recipients would do fine with vouchers that they could use for any social services,” Olasky explains, “but it would be irresponsible to place unconstrained vouchers in the hands of addicts, alcoholics, and others not committed to changing their lives.”

Moreover, the organizations to which welfare clients apply for aid are likely to differ in their effectiveness in helping clients achieve a positive, permanent transformation. So Olasky suggests that vouchers to groups that, for example, serve the homeless be designed so as not to pay an organization simply for “warehousing” individuals. A small amount might be paid to organizations that place individuals in transitional housing, and the full amount paid to an organization that helps establish clients in permanent homes.

A few years ago such creative ideas would have had no political life at all. But today Olasky’s books have moved the welfare debate to a new plane. The real credit for this, though, as Olasky himself would admit, goes to the frontline poverty fighters he has encountered in the littered streets of Chicago, Dallas, and Los Angeles. By telling their stories, Olasky has injected their wisdom into the debate. If our political leaders heed the advice of these heretofore neglected Good Samaritans, the poor will be the winners.

Amy L. Sherman is Director of Urban Ministry at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Va., and author of Restorers of Streets to Dwell In: Effective Church-Based Ministry Among the Poor (Crossway, forthcoming).