Renewing American Compassion, by Marvin Olasky (New York: The Free Press, 1996, 201 pp., $21)
I HAVE TO BEGIN this review of Marvin Olasky's Renewing American Compassion—a spirited argument for radical change in America's way of delivering social services to the needy—with a disclaimer. My son is a professional social worker. He serves a large caseload of persons with serious disabilities living in the core of a typically troubled big city. He is overworked and underpaid, and when he goes home at night he worries about his clients and their problems.
My son does not consider himself an instrument of social engineering. He would not be amused to be called a cog in a selfperpetuating bureaucratic machine. He does what he does because he wants to help people. I think he probably is good at that.
On the micro level and maybe also on the macro, this has relevance to Marvin Olasky's book as well as to pleas for welfare reform in general. (I take “welfare reform” to be shorthand for changing the social services delivery system overall and to involve a lot besides “welfare” properly so called.)
Conservative welfare critics say plenty that makes sense. But knocking social workers makes me queasy. Olasky tends to do that when deploring the professionalization of American social work early in this century. So, for example, he quotes a source of that day on the “opinionated and self-righteous attitude” of trained social workers. Maybe so. They weren't—and aren't—the only ones.
By all means, let us have more volunteers and volunteerism. But let us be aware that the professionals are in the trenches by choice, doing work that most of us wouldn't care to attempt.
Welfare has been a gold mine for political rhetoric for a long, long time. Bill Clinton campaigned for the White House in 1992 promising to “end welfare as we know it.” Four years later welfare is an issue in another campaign. Clinton argues that change is occurring in a number of states, with encouragement (if not exactly bold leadership) from his administration. Bob Dole argues that Clinton has been more hindrance than help—witness his vetoes. The debate is highly politicized. Both sides probably are right in part and partly wrong.
Olasky, editor of the lively evangelical newsweekly World and a veteran writer on welfare, is interested in reform but much more interested in something else. “It is time now,” he says, “to talk not about reforming the welfare system … but about replacing it with a truly compassionate approach based in private and religious charity.” He wants to turn social services over to the private sector, especially churches. He calls this “welfare replacement.” The model is the American charity system of the 19th century.
With some exceptions, Great Society-type programs haven't worked very well and often have done harm by fostering dependency and rewarding selfdestructive behavior.
Does this make sense? It is easy to agree that, with some notable exceptions, Great Society-type programs haven't worked very well and often have done harm by fostering dependency and rewarding selfdestructive behavior. It does not follow that across-the-board privatization is the answer. Judicious experiments—bearing in mind that these are experiments with people's lives—would seem to be in order.
Olasky employs an anecdotal method— vignettes from real life—to make his points about private initiative and personal conversion as keys to change. One wants him to be right. But is he? His prescriptions may work with redeemable down-and-outers. But what about those who, humanly speaking, are beyond redemption—who cannot change, cannot reform, cannot be other than dependent?
My son's clients include severely braindamaged persons. In other cases, recipients of social services are confirmed alcoholics and drug addicts, sociopaths, schizophrenics. Private charity already helps many of these people and probably could help more. But can the private sector care for them all?
Olasky's preferred funding mechanism is dubious. He rejects even federal block grants. Leave the money in the states, he says, and let them fund programs. But what about states with disproportionately large concentrations of needy people? Either taxpayers there will be taxed out of their socks or—more likely —the needy will get short shrift. Suddenly the federal bogeyman doesn't look so bad.
Olasky mocks the image of the social safety net spread by government largesse, but something of the kind is necessary. It must be woven tightly enough that even the worst cases—including the obnoxiously undeserving poor—do not fall through. Imperfect as it is, the present system at least sees minimally to that.
Still, as the interminable welfare debate continues, so does change. Responsible change should be welcomed. But as it takes place, let's not trash the gutsy people—professionals and volunteers alike, including those acting on religious motives—who strive to help the damaged human products of a profligate culture. My son doesn't deserve that.
Russell Shaw is based in Washington, D.C.