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Welfare reform’s silver-plated anniversary

Reflecting on the good and the bad of past poverty-relief efforts


Welfare reform’s silver-plated anniversary

In 1992 I came out with a book, The Tragedy of American Compassion, that received a lot of attention in 1995 after Newt Gingrich and the Republican majority in Congress embraced it. It provided historical support for limited welfare reform measures that President Bill Clinton reluctantly signed into law on Aug. 22, 1996. Tomorrow is its silver (more accurately, silver-plated) anniversary.

It’s bittersweet to look back at what seemed to be a growing social movement in the late 1990s, as George W. Bush campaigned on “compassionate conservatism.” The donor-popular magazine Philanthropy called Tragedy “one of eight books that changed America,” and Policy.com called it “one of the 50 most influential policy books of all time.” Not quite. It turned out to a blip.

After 9/11 the Bush administration pivoted from an emphasis on domestic concerns to a war presidency. Democrats, even as their party increasingly became a home for the wealthy, mocked the idea of a “compassionate” GOP, and some Republicans embraced a modern version of Social Darwinism. Compassionate Conservatism may be of interest to historians of the 1990s the way the New Chivalry and Single Tax movements are for the 1890s.

So, for the record, here are three presentations from October 1994 to December 1995 that were useful in the welfare reform debate. The first and third are columns not searchable online (our search engine brings up articles from mid-1996 onward) and the second is my Congressional testimony. I have left in some semi-colons (ugh).

Tough minds, warm hearts

In California, Texas, Florida, and other states, welfare reform is becoming a key campaign issue. Soundbites—“two years and out!”—are flying. The welfare structure is so corrupt that the temptation to play Lizzie Borden politics with it—“Lizzie Borden took an ax, and gave the system 40 whacks”—is hard to resist.

If Republicans win big next month, they will have the brawn to swing the ax; Bill Clinton, unless he is willing to alienate his liberal core, will keep pushing the cosmetic changes he already has proposed; the result will be either nothing or a compromise that leaves everyone frustrated. Next year, then, will be an opportune time to propose a radical Christian alternative, one that will not win immediate acceptance but could have legs—if some young Republican congressmen lead the way toward a church-based and community-based effective anti-poverty system.

Since a book I wrote on poverty-fighting, The Tragedy of American Compassion, has been getting some attention lately, I had dinner in Washington recently with three of those congressmen who are involved with welfare reform. All three are professing Christians; all three have their hearts in the right place; all three were asking the right question: “What Biblical principles should be brought to bear on welfare reform?”

That led us into conversation about the religious underpinnings of our current system. In essence, theological universalists early in this century argued, “If anyone goes to hell, then God is unfair.” Later in this century, when the federal government became our new god, advocates of what I call social universalism began to say, “If anyone is poor, then Government is unfair.” Welfare became an entitlement.

These days orthodox Democrats make up the social universalist regiments; neo- orthodox Democrats sometimes talk about work requirements for welfare, but their restrictions are easily avoided because they can’t escape the social universalistic faith. The Republican response, however, is often social Darwinist: just as Darwin’s theory argued that progress comes only by a survival of the fittest, so propose that the poor should be left to their own resorts. (Most, as they die off, will eliminate a barrier to the evolutionary progress of humanity.)

There is an alternative to both social universalism and social Darwinism; historically in American culture, it was what could be called social Calvinism. Just as Calvinists preached (and preach) the gospel to everyone, not knowing who in God’s providence will respond, but aware that some will and some will not, for reasons we do not understand, so social Calvinists up to a century ago fought poverty effectively by offering spiritual challenge and entry-level jobs to the poor.

Social Calvinists up to a century ago fought poverty effectively by offering spiritual challenge and entry-level jobs to the poor.

In the 19th century, the poor who responded to social Calvinist appeals began moving out of poverty: The climb was hard but Christians were there to help. To the able-bodied who did not respond, the apostle Paul’s doctrine was applied: “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” But as universalism pushed back Calvinism theologically early in this century, so social universalism became the soil for new governmental programs from the 1930s through the 1960s—and the rest is misery.

Christian members of Congress should accept neither liberal stinginess (continuation of a social universalistic governmental system that supposedly relieves us of the obligation to exercise personal compassion toward those in need) nor conservative stinginess (substitution of a social Darwinist system that is cheaper but even colder). The critical task in welfare reform over the next few years is to eliminate government’s failed programs and to have something to put in their place: a Bible-based system of charity and challenge that can activate groups within churches to work intensively with welfare recipients who need more than a check.

Since many churches have emphasized development of small groups during the 1990s, the infrastructure for such a program already is in place—but the small groups must be motivated to look outwards by bringing into the midst of each a needy person or family. Pastors will be key motivators here: they should explain that social universalists want to be their brothers’ keepers (remember, it was Cain, not God, who phrased the question that way) and social Darwinists are sometimes their brothers’ killers, but those who follow in Christ’s steps are their brothers’ helpers.

We can’t keep those who insist on ruining their souls and bodies from doing so, but we should not cooperate in the killing either; we should help them by offering both the Gospel and material opportunity. Small groups can do both in a way that governmental bureaucrats cannot, and legislators can help by defunding the bureaucracy and using money budgeted for welfare to offer tax credits that will compensate the church “compassion circles” for their out-of-pocket material support of the person in need. In that way, people of all income brackets will have more opportunity to become their brothers’ helpers.

There’s much more to this plan—but it will only get moving if tough-minded, warm-hearted leaders commit themselves to planting a tree every time they swing an ax.

What our predecessors accomplished

There’s a lot to say and not much time, so let me make just two points here—one on history, one on language—and I’ll be glad to discuss my research further with you later or on some other day.

My historical point is this: Today we have lots of theories about fighting poverty, but it is not necessary to be moving in the theoretical plane. We know how to fight poverty. We had successful anti-poverty programs a century ago, successful because they embodied seven points that can be remembered in alphabetical order: affiliation, bonding, categorization, discernment, employment, freedom, and God. Those are all explained in my written testimony, but the key element in all of them is personal involvement and challenge, both material and spiritual.

The history shows that big bureaucratic programs, whether federal or state, have never worked. Here are some quotations: Recipients of relief “lose their energy and self-respect.” Government aid creates “a dependent feeling, a dry rot.” Many of the poor are “worse off than if they had never been helped.” You might think those quotations are from today’s debates, but they all come from the 1870s—and, when I spent a year in the bowels of the wonderful Library of Congress located just a couple of blocks from where we sit, I found hundreds of references like these. This is not theory, this is not ideology, this is real life experience a century ago and today, and it’s there for anyone to see.

What’s also there for anyone who wants to spend the time in research are the records of what did work then. During the 19th century a successful war on poverty was waged by tens of thousands of local, private charitable agencies and religious groups around the country. The platoons of the greatest charity army in American history often were small. They were made up of volunteers led by poorly paid but deeply dedicated professional managers. Over in the library are thousands of eyewitness accounts and journalistic assessments: go look at some of them, please.

The poverty fighters then did not abolish poverty, but they saw movement out of poverty by millions of people. They saw springs of fresh water flowing among the poor, not just blocks of ice sitting in a perpetual winter of multi-generational welfare dependency. And the optimism prevalent then contrasts sharply with the demoralization among the poor and the cynicism among the better-off that is so common now.

What was their secret? It was not neglect, either benign or malign. It was their understanding of the literal and biblical meaning of compassion—and this leads to the point on language that I would like to make. Today in Washington, the word is often used in connection with the spending of billions of dollars—a “compassionate” piece of legislation. But the word itself comes from two Latin words—com, with, and pati, to suffer—and the emphasis is on personal involvement with the needy, suffering with them, not just giving to them. “Suffering with” means adopting hard-to-place babies, providing shelter to women undergoing crisis pregnancies, becoming a big brother to a fatherless child, working one-on-one with a young single mother.

If we had more time, I’d like to tell you stories of Charles Brace, John McDowell, Helen Mercy Woods, Jerry McAuley, and hundreds more—a great cloud of witnesses who suffered with. These unknown soldiers spent their lives in true compassion and have been almost entirely ignored by historians who assume that anti-poverty work did not become real until governments became involved. But I spent a year with those manuscript journals and newspaper accounts and organization records, and I can tell you that suffering with worked, big time.

If folks a hundred years ago could help others to move out of poverty, and then turn their attention to the next group of immigrants and impoverished, why can’t we?

If folks a hundred years ago could help others to move out of poverty, and then turn their attention to the next group of immigrants and impoverished, why can’t we? Did they have more time than we do? No, even though we feel stressed, their workdays on the average were longer. Did they have more money? No, we are far more affluent as a society now. Did they have more space in their homes, so they could take in another person and we cannot? No, on the average our houses are far larger. Did they have less of a drug and alcohol problem? Probably not. They did have fewer single-parenting situations—there was less illegitimacy and divorce then—but life expectancy was lower, so there were lots of orphans and half-orphans. We’re more spread out now, but our travel time is not any greater.

Look, when you’ve lived in 19th century cities as I have, vicariously, you don’t fall for those myths of the good old days. Life was hard. But here’s what is so exciting: Volunteers opened their own homes to deserted women and orphaned children. They offered employment to nomadic men who had abandoned hope and most human contact. Most significantly, they made moral demands on recipients of aid. They saw family, work, freedom, and faith as central to our being, not as life-style options. The volunteers gave of their own lives not just so that others might survive, but that they might thrive.

What I learned leads me to wonder: Why can’t we do the same? Were Americans then a different people than we are today? Have we become so corrupted that we don’t care about others? Have we become so lazy that we are unwilling to suffer with? I think not. I hope not. But we have become used to having someone else do it for us—even though we know that a professional social worker, with a case load of 200 or so, can’t do much more than shuffle paper. Bad charity drives out good.

My conclusion is that when we complain about a spendthrift modern welfare state, we’re right about the costs but we’re actually stating the problem backwards. The major flaw of the modern welfare state is not that it is extravagant, but that it is too stingy. It gives the needy bread and tells them to be content with that alone. It gives the rest of us the opportunity to be stingy also: We can soothe our consciences as we scrimp on what many of the destitute need most—love, time, and challenge. We need to recapture the optimism that a look at history can provide. We need to recapture the understanding that a true definition of compassion suggests.

In the name of the children

But what about the children?

That’s the question liberal defenders of the status quo throw at Christians and conservatives who have worked this year to change the current welfare system. But that question can only be dealt with responsibly when two other questions are answered first.

First, will the changes lead to children being deprived of food, shelter, clothing, or medicine? Answer: Only if welfare administrators refuse to tighten their belts. Only one-quarter of welfare funds now appropriated get to the poor people they are designed to help; much of the rest goes to support federal and state bureaucracies and their political allies in the nonprofit sector. If the welfare system were a private corporation, its middle management corps already would have been substantially downsized; as it is, the change needs to be imposed.

Today, many poor children see all around them the apathy of life on welfare—and it’s the fatalism that hurts.

Second, will the changes lead to an improved war against the real enemy, fatalism? Answer: yes. If poverty itself led to illegitimacy, crime, laziness, and stupidity, the United States could never have become a rich country, because it was poor people—worse off materially than poor individuals today—who built America. But poor children in the past generally had parents who showed by word and deed the virtue of striving to meet challenges. Today, many poor children see all around them the apathy of life on welfare—and it’s the fatalism that hurts. If welfare reforms help to develop more hard-working, family-honoring parents, their children will be immensely helped.

Welfare hurts children: That’s more than a theory. One recent study looked at the earnings of adult men who had grown up poor. The study compared adults of the same race who as children had the same family income, family structure, and parental educational background; the only difference was whether families derived the bulk of income from welfare or work. The study showed that the more welfare income a boy’s family had received as he was growing up, the lower his earnings as an adult; but more non-welfare income led to higher adult earning. The bottom line was that hard-working parents, even (and sometimes especially) if poor, generally produce hard-working children.

Sound Christian programs help children: That’s also more than a theory. Groups provide assistance at every age from conception through adulthood:

  • Some 3,000 crisis pregnancy centers throughout the United States offer material, psychological, and spiritual help to young women who are pregnant and do not want to be, and thus help their children to avoid death before birth and gain a better life after they are born. The largest single network of independent local programs, CareNet, has headquarters in Sterling, Va.
  • Bethany Christian Services cuts through the adoption bureaucracy as well as anyone, and also is willing to do transracial adoptions at a time when some organizations still look at the skin color rather than the character of potential adoptive parents. About half of the states have Bethany organizations; national headquarters are in Grand Rapids, Mich.
  • KidsHope, based in Spring Lake, Mich., but now expanding nationwide, leads members of congregations to become tutors and mentors of children in poor communities. Children receive significant help and church members learn to reach out successfully.
  • Boys Town, based in Omaha but now expanded to several states, has a series of programs for children and families in crisis; family-style homes for abandoned and abused children are the most intensive. Boys Town’s proven system gives people with ordinary parenting skills the ability to handle troubled kids.
  • Teen Challenge, headquartered in Springfield, Mo., has over 140 local chapters devoted to helping young people escape addiction or alcoholism. Teen Challenge leaders, generally ex-addicts themselves, understand that people do drugs or get drunk daily because they have holes in their souls that only God can fill.

But what about the children? Two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ came into the world to suffer with us (that is the literal meaning of compassion) and die for us. In this year of our Lord 1995, it is a great blessing to see Christians who follow in his steps. And it is a great mistake to be panicked into supporting programs that present “buy one, get one” offers: Here’s bread, but along with it you have to swallow a stone.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.



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