The Tragedy of American Compassion
By Marvin Olasky.
Regnery Gateway, 2022.
Paperback, 300 pages, $18.99.

Reviewed by Frank Filocomo.

What does it mean to be compassionate to the needy? More precisely: what does it mean to be compassionate, and who are the needy? Marvin Olasky succinctly answers these complicated questions in his powerful book, The Tragedy of American Compassion

Most of us, I think, are at least somewhat altruistic; we desire to extend a helping hand to those who are less fortunate. We offer aid in the form of a dollar to a homeless man on the subway, or a small monetary donation to a charity of some sort. Afterwards, we pat ourselves on the back as though we’ve done our mitzvah for the day. But what if, by indiscriminately distributing money to the homeless, we aren’t helping? Could it be that we are actually doing more harm than good?

Olasky offers the reader a sobering perspective: aid given indiscriminately—that is, without the rigor of discerning the truly needy (e.g., widows, the terminally ill, disabled) from the intemperate pauper—is feeding society’s ills. Olasky calls this a “pauperizing” practice. 

So, if blindly throwing money at the problem is ultimately detrimental to the welfare of the poor, then what is the proper solution to the homelessness and poverty crises? For Olasky, true compassion requires far more from the giver than a mere monetary donation to the Salvation Army or a dollar or two to the homeless man on the corner; it requires one to suffer with the indigent. 

To “suffer with,” Olasky astutely points out, is the real definition of compassion. This, though, requires a great deal more from the giver; aid from afar simply won’t do. Able-bodied persons who wish to help the poor must do so in a way that will leave the recipient not with a feeling of entitlement to receive said aid, but with the desire and motivation to work diligently and lift himself up. 

What, though, does this look like in practice? The America of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries had an unusually weak central government and a robust private sector. Welfare and almsgiving, therefore, were provided by benevolent societies as well as faith-based charities. Faith is a central component here. It is impossible to properly understand the role that these organizations played through a secular lens. Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish groups were the driving forces behind the real compassionate movement in America. The theological backbone of these early organizations instilled in them a sense of divine obligation to lift up the poor from their miserable, fallen state. As Olasky notes, “Christians observed that Jesus neither abandoned the needy nor fed them immediately—instead, He taught them.” So, in essence, these groups sought to teach the poor and equip them with the tools necessary to become independent, contributing members of society. This often took the form of Bible studies and spiritual counsel. 

While, on the surface, the idea of discernment or deservingness may seem cold, Olasky demonstrates how, in the long run, this strategy is ultimately advantageous to the welfare of the indigent. The able-bodied poor, who largely consist of intemperate men, have proven to be better off after receiving a dose of tough love and work rather than un-vetted handouts. 

The Buffalo Charity Organization Society provides an emblematic example of this kind of tough love. The Buffalo COS embodied the following maxim: “the able-bodied who did not work were not entitled to eat.” Though some may perceive this to be overly rigid or even downright cruel, the organization yielded incredible results: “By 1894,” Olasky writes, “the Buffalo COS was providing 6,286 days of work to men with families and 11,589 days of work to homeless men.” The lesson was simple: work requirements and discernment, not no-questions-asked aid and indiscriminate alms, helped men and their families pull themselves out of the gutters of poverty and shame. 

Even still, this idea of distinguishing the “deserving from the lazy” was seen as cold-hearted. Some charities, in response to this erroneous and myopic perception, capitulated to the critics. As Olasky explains, “Once some groups succumbed to the pressure to give indiscriminately, other groups faced pressure to go and do likewise, or risk being castigated as Scrooges and ignored by those it hoped to help.” 

This sentiment that alms were a right and that they should be distributed indiscriminately was best articulated by a nascent, nineteenth-century ideology called “social universalism.” The social universalists, led by their intellectual thought leader, Horace Greeley, thought the old tried-and-true approach to combating poverty (i.e., separating the deserving from the undeserving and demanding work in exchange for alms) was insufficient. As Olasky puts it, the Greeleyites believed that “people are naturally good and that every person has a right to both eternal salvation and temporal prosperity.” 

The Christian and Jewish charities that can be attributed to rehabilitating thousands upon thousands of formerly impoverished Americans, however, were adamant in their objection to Greeley’s rights-based universalism. Olasky’s book, which is replete with both empirical data and anecdotal accounts, makes a compelling case that discernment and spiritual counsel has been, historically, very successful. Indiscriminate charity, on the other hand, has not yielded even remotely comparable results. 

The reason for social universalism’s lack of success is, in large part, due to the lack of demand from the individual. Whereas the old-school Christian charities preached that, before the indigent person’s circumstances could change, the person must change internally and spiritually, the universalists blamed externalities entirely. Simply put, the individual need not do any personal reflection, for their plight is the fault of the surrounding environment for which they inhabit. 

But it was not just the social universalists who posed a threat to the future of authentic American compassion. Social Darwinism, which Olasky refers to as a “poisonous ideology,” was also an anti-Christian belief system. It saw the indigent not as brethren who had lost their way and needed the light of God to illuminate the path to temperance and self-reliance, but as dead weight that served as a detriment to the greater society. It was, in fact, Herbert Spencer, the Horace Greeley of the social Darwinist movement, who believed “the unfit must be eliminated as nature intended, for the principle of natural selection must not be violated by the artificial preservation of those least able to take care of themselves.” 

While, on the surface, it appears as though the social universalists were kinder and more altruistic than the social Darwinists, both ideologies were equally detrimental to society’s social fabric. Though it is true that the social Darwinists did not wish to help, but to banish the poor from American society, the universalists, in their lack of discernment and rights-based almsgiving, pauperized the indigent, making them slaves to external forces. Both groups were pernicious. 

What, though, was the result of these normative squabbles? We now live in a post-Great Society America where discernment is seen as Scrooge-like and charity is distributed to the poor indiscriminately. The social universalists have, for the most part, won. Government has swelled in size, and left-wing groups, instead of encouraging a sort of inward reflection and spiritual reawakening among the poor, have redirected their gaze towards externalities—“systemic problems.” Individual culpability seems to be left out of the equation entirely. This, in turn, has resulted in the poor becoming increasingly dependent on the government dole. 

Olasky’s solution to our current approach to welfare is actually quite simple: we, as a society, must look to our past as a blueprint for success. That is to say, the faith-based groups that helped so many lost souls throughout the centuries ought to be revered and studied, not castigated. Until we go back to this true kind of compassion, wherein the privileged are willing to get their hands dirty and suffer with the poor, America will continue on this pauperizing path. 

Frank Filocomo is a graduate student at New York University and an intern at National Review Institute.

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