Just prior to Christmas break, I volunteered to be a part of a school project geared toward examining several books on poverty relief. It is interesting to find that many of the more recent publications are challenging Christians, churches, and even the government to think differently about fighting poverty and helping people in need. I chose to read and review Marvin Olasky’s influential work called The Tragedy of American Compassion. Philanthropy calls it “one of eight books that changed America” and Policy.com says it is “one of the 50 most influential policy books of all time.” Here’s what I think:

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Jesus once remarked that “the poor you will always have with you.” There is not a single period of history that has not been touched by human poverty in some way. Today, America stands as one of the wealthiest nations in the world. Many people have immigrated to the land of opportunity in order to chase the American dream and own a little slice of the pie. Yet America is no exception when it comes to poverty. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the number of Americans living in poverty has increased by 3.5 million between 2008 and 2009. As the numbers show, poverty is a real issue today despite the advancements of the current era. Marvin Olasky proposes a way forward by looking backward. He seeks to expose the flaws of the current system of government welfare by comparing it to the early model of compassion.

The opening chapter of the book establishes the foundation for a “compassionate conservatism.” According to Olasky, the colonial period of America embodied a personal approach to poverty fighting. People opened their homes to the poor and willingly offered aid when the need arose. The rich and poor came into contact with one another on a regular basis so that the needs of the poor could be met by the individuals who had the means to make it possible. Charity volunteers and groups distinguished between the helpless and the able-bodied poor. Olasky draws attention to the early model’s emphasis on the rehabilitation of the poor and their reconnection to the community. However, the middle of the 19th century brought a significant challenge to the idea of personal care. Population increases led to the rise of large cities across the country. The amount of poverty increased in proportion to the growing population. Large cities provided an environment conducive to anonymity. The rich and poor became further separated by a lack of regular interaction. Poverty relief required more organization in order to meet the increasing needs of the poor. Olasky documents the inception of private societies and organizations in order to manage the new dynamics of poverty in major cities. The premises of the colonial era still held true during this time. Cities were divided into smaller segments in order to retain the idea of personal care. The colonial charity consensus lived on despite the challenges of a growing and ever-changing culture.

In his book, Olasky identifies seven key principles of charity work that were galvanized during the early challenges. He claims that these principles were fundamental to the success of early poverty relief and that recent welfare practice has forgotten them. The “seven seals of good philanthropic practice” were affiliation, bonding, categorization, discernment, employment, freedom, and God. Affiliation involved reconnecting a person to family relationships and bringing him or her back into community. “When adult applicants for help were truly alone, then it was time for bonding with volunteers, who in essence became new family members.” Categorization helped distinguish between the helpless, faultless, able-bodied, and lazy. Charity workers used discernment to prevent fraudulent abuse of aid and to practice good stewardship of limited resources. Organizations required short-term work for the able-bodied poor with the goal of providing long-term employment. They emphasized employment as the means to “resisting enslavement to the charity of governmental or private masters.” The final seal concerning God recognized the spiritual need of the poor as well as the physical. “They saw God showing compassion while demanding change, and they tried to do the same.” The seven seals describe a personal approach to relief that discerns the true needs of the poor before handing out aid.

Olasky contends that a correlation exists between a rise in the ineffectiveness of poverty relief and the decline of volunteerism. The field of professional social work has marginalized the volunteer and created an attitude of indifference amongst average Americans. People are less willing to give time and materials to a cause or organization that they have no personal connection to. However, Olasky makes it clear that the shift from privatized to government relief was more than a matter of pragmatics. Worldview mattered in the effort to relieve poverty. “Leaders and volunteers both understood, moreover, that the most vital kind of help involved a change in worldview, not just a temporary adjustment of worldly conditions.” Christianity had provided the foundation for privatized relief in America from the earliest days. According to Christian belief, every person has worth because he or she has been created in the image of God. Yet all humanity has been corrupted by sin. As Olasky points out, these two truths were essential convictions that led the early relief workers to couple love with discipline in aiding the poor. Olasky notes that no coincidence exists in the relationship between the challenge of Christian faith in America and the rise of a governmental system of aid. Social Universalism pressed forward with the belief that all human beings were essentially good and merely needed material relief to stoke the fires of goodness in their own lives. People merely needed a free handout and a change in conditions in order to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. The government based system eliminated the element of Christian transformation that was crucial to the early model. Olasky calls for a return to the early American model of compassion based on personal care, volunteer involvement, and Christian convictions.

Olasky’s historical approach to this book makes it a unique contribution to the discussion on poverty relief. He paints a compelling picture of the American people taking the initiative and banding together to fight poverty. He gives a few current examples of Christian organizations that embody the principles of personal and responsible care for the poor. However, the book is not without a few weaknesses. Olasky assumes that his readers understand the government welfare system and how it works. He does not explain the process of receiving aid from the government and thus leaves uninformed readers without a reference point in this matter. The early model of compassionate care worked in a culture that was sympathetic to the values and principles of Christianity. Postmodern America is becoming more secular by the minute. A society hostile to the gospel is unlikely to tolerate the spiritual aspect of early poverty relief and thus look upon the entire endeavor with skepticism. Olasky does not provide much commentary on this difficulty. Additionally, the model of discerning care will consistently be undercut by the indiscriminate aid of the welfare system. Early American charity workers had to deal with this obstruction in smaller increments without the entire system working against them.  The large scale implications of this model will not be experienced until a policy change takes effect in culture. It seems that the government welfare system would have to be completely overhauled or dismantled in order to create a more agreeable environment for privatized relief work of this nature. Olasky does not provide a specific plan for a policy change of this magnitude.

Despite these concerns, Olasky’s strengths far outweigh his weaknesses in this book. Poverty does not have a one-size-fits-all answer. It cannot be fought in abstraction. The beauty of Olasky’s proposal is that it creates a model of relief work based on personal care that seeks to discern the need of each poor person. The emphasis on personal attention and the humanizing of the poor is one of the books clearest strengths. The book provides a much needed call to arms for people everywhere. He challenges every individual to take up the mantle of responsibility and to get involved personally in the efforts of poverty relief. He calls Christians to fulfill their call to personally care for the poor, helpless, widowed, and orphaned. The continual reminder concerning the negative effects of free handouts is helpful to anyone who has ever been asked for a couple of bucks on the street. The importance of spiritual transformation in fighting poverty is a positive distinction of the book. A person needs a change of heart and worldview in order to be brought out of poverty. Olasky makes it clear that Jesus Christ is the only one who can effect such a change. He reminds Christians that spiritual and physical care go hand in hand. The gospel gains a foothold in the lives of the poor when proclamation is accompanied by works of compassion. Marvin Olasky has written an important work that should be read by anyone concerned about fighting poverty and caring for the poor. He has provided a window into the past to help forge a way into the future of poverty relief work.

What Do You Think?