William J. Bennett once called it "the most important book on welfare and social policy in a decade. Period." It influenced the Clinton Administration's welfare reform and deeply affected then-Governor George W. Bush's policies in Texas. But with the war on terror, the ideas in The Tragedy of American Compassion have taken a backseat.
Because it is based on historical successes and ancient wisdom, however, Tragedy is as timeless as ever. Marvin Olasky's groundbreaking book turns on its head both conventional history and rhetoric, showing that America's volunteer poverty-fighters were often more effective than our recent professionalized corps. His research also reveals that the real problem of modern welfare is not its cost but its stinginess in offering the true necessities: challenging, personal, and spiritual aid rather than entitlement and bureaucracy. So this book is now being reissued with new frontmatter to prepare a new generation of Americans to offer help that actually helps and to effectively confront once again the establishment that still impoverishes the impoverished. Foreword by Amy Sherman.
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Can a man be content with a piece of bread and some change tossed his way from a passerby? Today's modern welfare state expects he can. Those who control the money in our society think that giving a dollar at the train station and then appropriating a billion dollars for federal housing can cure the ails of the homeless and the poor. But the crisis of the modern welfare state is more than a crisis of government. Private charities that dispense aid indiscriminately while ignoring the moral and spiritual needs of the poor are also to blame. Like animals in the zoo at feeding time, the needy are given a plate of food but rarely receive the love and time that only a person can give. Poverty fighters 100 years ago were more compassionate--in the literal meaning of "suffering with"--than many of us are now. They opened their own homes to deserted women and children. They offered employment to nomadic men who had abandoned hope and 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. No one was allowed to eat and run. Some kind of honest labor was required of those who needed food or a place to sleep in return. Woodyards next to homeless shelters were as common in the 1890's as liquor stores are in the 1990's. When an able bodied woman sought relief, she was given a seat in the "sewing room" and asked to work on garments given to the helpless poor. To begin where poverty fighters a century ago began, Marvin Olasky emphasizes seven ideas that recent welfare practice has put aside: affiliation, bonding, categorization, discernment, employment, freedom, and most importantly, belief in God. In the end, not much will be accomplished without a spiritual revival that transforms the everyday advice we give and receive, and the way we lead our lives. It's time we realized that there is only so much that public policy can do. That only a richness of spirit can battle a poverty of soul. The century-old question--does any given scheme of help...make great demands on men to give themselves to their brethren?--is still the right one to ask. Most of our 20th-century schemes have failed. It's time to learn from the warm hearts and hard heads of the 19th-century.About the Author:
Marvin Olasky (PhD, University of Michigan) is the editor in chief of World magazine, holder of the distinguished chair in journalism and public policy at Patrick Henry College, and senior fellow of the Acton Institute. He was previously a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, a Boston Globe reporter, and a Du Pont Company speechwriter. He is the author of twenty books and more than 3,500 articles. He and his wife, Susan, have four sons.
Amy L. Sherman (PhD, University of Virginia) is a senior fellow at the Sagamore Institute for Policy Research, where she directs the Center on Faith in Communities. She is the author of six books and over eighty articles in a variety of periodicals. Sherman has served for several years as a senior fellow with the International Justice Mission’s Institute for Biblical Justice.
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