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R&L: You are viewed by many as one of the architects of the “Welfare Revolution”. Many believe that this revolution is motivated solely by financial concerns, but in your work The Tragedy of American Compassion, you speak of other dimensions and motivations. What do you believe are the strongest reasons for welfare reform?

Olasky: I am glad to be viewed as an architect, but there are others who have done far more than me. I think of people like Bob Woodson, Charles Murray, Robert Rector — and your work at the Acton Institute.

There are three strong reasons for reforming welfare: the first is biblical. The current welfare system takes men and women created in God’s image and dehumanizes them. Most programs treat people like animals; merely placing food in front of people can be akin to putting food in dog bowls.

The second reason for reform is historical. We have a long record of what works and what doesn’t work. Charity is a biblical notion, but people who do not have a biblical worldview at least should be willing to look at history. To put it simply, successful anti-poverty programs emphasize challenge, personal help and, whether people like it or not, some level of spiritual involvement.

Programs which emphasize entitlements, bureaucracy, and the marginalization of God, do not work. American history and the history of England, as Gertrude Himmelfarb has demonstrated, offers a strictly pragmatic basis for church and private charity as more effective than government sponsored programs.

A third reason comes out of the American dream. My grandparents came to this country penniless. They were able, through a system that emphasized liberty and hard work, to make a better life for themselves and future generations. If you talk with the recipients of welfare, a lot of them would like to become independent and self-supporting. But they enter into the welfare system, sometimes with the expectations that it will be short term, and very easily get used to it. Over time their dreams die.

R&L: Do you have any evidence that this analysis is also shared by many employed by the system?

The same applies to the dreams of those who want to help. The general frustration with the current welfare system is not primarily about the money that is spent on welfare, but grows out of the sense that the money is not performing any useful function. Since I have gained some degree of notoriety, I have received letters and calls from people in government offices and private charities who are enormously frustrated, they wanted to help, they went into social work to help, and all they are doing now is shuffling paper and barely helping people stay alive. Their dreams die.

Welfare reform is not so much about money, as it is about dreams and aspirations and hope. Reform is not a question of cost-effectiveness as much as it is a question of human dignity and truly helping the poor.

R&L: In your opinion, how did we, as a nation, get to the point where we are now? Was it the failure of private charities which justified this type of government intervention?

Olasky: There are many reasons for the development of the current welfare state, but it was often the success, and not the failure, of the private and church based welfare system, that led to government action. Private sector welfare was successful in that many people were helped out of poverty. Especially in the early twentieth century, people looked at that success and asked: Why can’t we do more? Why can’t we rescue every person? Many thought the way to do this was to have a universal system where everyone will be covered. People thought that the government would learn from what the private sector had accomplished.

There were other contributing factors, including an anti-biblical bias on the part of some of those who designed the current system. Empire building and the feathering of personal nests certainly played a part in the increase in government programs. Many politicians desired to have a strong central government, and the creation of a welfare state was one instrument to that end.

R&L: Do you believe that this debate is fundamentally a matter of private versus public charity? Are there other dimensions to this debate?

Olasky: In terms of the public versus private debate, the government sector is virtually doomed to failure as much as government programs turn welfare into an entitlement, centralized through preservation of a vast impersonal bureaucracy, and continue, through a mistaken interpretation of the First Amendment,to marginalize God.

Private bureaucracies are not necessarily any better, but at least they have more opportunity and possibility. There is no inevitability of success; there is nothing magical about the private sector, or about being church based. Private charities can make as many mistakes as those in the public sector. But inherent to the private sector are options not possible for government structures.

Government bureaucracies are not capable of really understanding the poor as individuals; of being able to understand the character of those they try to help. Governments cannot challenge, give personal hope, and keep a spiritual focus.

R&L: You have spoken of a particular experience which sparked your interest in the topic of welfare reform: you lived as a streetperson for a few days in Washington D.C. Would you share a bit of this experience with us and tell us what lessons you learned concerning Washington’s social services?

Olasky: I had been conducting research in the bowels of the library of Congress for over six months and wanting to get out in the Spring and see for myself what was going on in Washington. It was not an attempt to attain the consciousness of a homeless person.

It was an attempt to see who was telling the truth about the services available to homeless people in Washington D.C. Some homeless advocates were saying that basic needs were not being met. I had also talked with a friend of mine, a professor in Tennessee named Dan McMurray, who had actually gone out to a number of cities as a homeless person, and he had a different story.

In March of 1990 I didn’t take a shower for several days, dressed in old clothes, and just walked around with Dan. We started out at the largest homeless shelter in the country, the Center for Creative Non-Violence, and through word of mouth would ask people where to go for lunch or clothes. We had not planned it beyond the first stop at CCNV. After that it was where people directed us.

What did I learn in just a couple of days on the streets? I was given lots of food, lots of offers of clothing and shelter, lots of offers of free medicine — lots of stuff. I was never asked to do anything. Even in McDonald’s the custom is to clean up your own tray after you are finished eating. This is not the custom in some homeless shelters. You just sit down, the food is put in front of you, like putting food in a dog’s bowl, and when the dog is finished, you just wander off. You do not have to do any work, no cleaning up or helping out.

Since people were ready to provide me with all sorts of material help, I then thought to ask them for spiritual counseling, or some sort of personal direction. I decided to ask for a Bible. I got everything else, but never a Bible. One example: in the basement of a church in downtown Washington, which by the way was founded by General Howard, after whom Howard University is named (he was known as the Christian general) there was a soup kitchen, but no Bible available, not even a gospel message from the staff.

If our reform efforts accomplish anything I hope it is this: that we stop merely giving material things and try to address all the needs of the poor. The mere giving of food and shelter is not enough.

R&L: One objection often raised against the centralized welfare system is that it violates the principle of subsidiarity - that the needs of individuals and of groups are met most effectively and efficiently by immediate and local sources, whether that be church or private organizations. In light of this principle what do you see as the role for mediating institutions?

Olasky: You always want to go to the best immediate source. The way to help children is by helping the parents. Instead of having schools with built-in clinics and free breakfasts and dinners we need to ask: what can we do to strengthen the role of parents, what can you do to build two parent families instead of single parent households? There is a group in Dallas that used to buy toys for children at Christmas; they presented these toys through a Santa Claus at a large group party. This is not very helpful when some parents work hard to scrape together money to buy something, and the toys they buy are not as good as the toys the children get from this group of well-intentioned people. This organization found a better way: it has a thrift shop with new toys that were donated, and poor parents can come in there and pay 10 cents on the dollar. This enables them to present better toys to their children that they themselves have purchased. This is a small point, but it is one example of helping parents.

You have to put yourself in the position of those you are helping. Take a father who has been a deadbeat dad, but he does show up at Christmas time and he should be helped to have a larger role in his children’s lives. He shows up at a party with a present, not a great present, but a present, and he sees the child see receive some better present and he slinks out the door. This is discouraging. Events like these require thoughtfulness, sensitivity and putting yourself in the position of the needy.

R&L:The gradual dismantling of the present Welfare State will mean that some organizations that are presently concerned with meeting the needs of those on the welfare roles may temporarily find themselves without funding. Your weekly magazine, World, has devoted a great deal of attention to this concern. Do you believe that private initiative can fill the gap left by the government?

Olasky: People are already filling the gaps left by the government. In World we have stories from Detroit, Washington, Birmingham, St. Louis, Dallas, Phoenix, Los Angeles, the list goes on and on. All over the country there are individuals and small organizations serving those in need.

The question I keep asking when I go to these places is whether the people who run and volunteer in these programs are superhuman individuals? Are they extraordinarily talented and charismatic individuals? Are they people without families and other commitments?

I suppose there is a basic assumption that ordinary people could not possibly do this sort of job. What I am seeing so far is ordinary individuals who are dedicated and willing to sacrifice. These programs are not so unusual that they cannot be replicated elsewhere. What I come away with from these stories and visits is the question: Why can’t others do the same?

What keeps these sorts of programs from being set-up elsewhere? Government programs often cripple initiative. Many good people, who would otherwise attempt to get involved, look and see various government agencies performing these tasks. They may be doing it poorly, but they are doing it. People walk away saying it is already being done.

People also ask, why should I give money to charity? I am already paying $3,500 a year (that is the amount that the average household pays in taxes toward social welfare programs) — why do more? Many families pay these higher taxes through a second job. Bad charity drives out good.

R&L: You have been instrumental in bringing to light the dangers of indiscriminate giving. Could you explain what you mean by this?

Olasky: Giving is morally neutral; that is something which we often do not understand. There is a tendency to emphasize giving as if giving by itself is a wonderful thing. It depends on what is being given and where the giving is going. For example, there is the famous segment of Matthew 25: Jesus saying on the day of judgment that when I was hungry you gave me food and when thirsty you gave me drink. This is a familiar and terrific passage, which can speak to us today.

Today’s poor in the United States are the victims and perpetrators of illegitimacy and abandonment, of family non-formation and malformation, alienation and loneliness; but they are not suffering from thirst, hunger or nakedness, except by choice, or insanity, or parental abuse.

Some will make good use of a helping hand, but if you are an addict any available money you have will go to satisfy your addiction. Christ does not include in his list of commended charitable acts: when I was strung out you gave me dope. Or, in other cases: when I abandoned my family you gave me a place to stay and helped me justify my actions; when I was in prison you helped me get out quickly so I could commit more crimes. If we take Christ’s word seriously, then giving money that goes for drugs is akin to sticking heroin into Jesus’s veins.

R&L: Do the Scriptures have anything else to say concerning prudent giving?

Olasky: There is also Paul’s first letter to Timothy. In chapter five Paul gives advice concerning charity to widows and orphans — who are the people most worthy of help in the Bible. Paul presents guidelines for such charity. He stresses giving only to those who are really in need. Really in need means lacking family. If a widow has children or grandchildren, then these must learn to put their religion into practice by caring for their family. When widows have no family they are eligible for aid, but there are further considerations — no widow may be put on a list of widows unless she is over 60, has been faithful to her husband, and is well known for her good deeds. As for younger widows, Paul says do not put them on such a list; Paul’s fear is that they will grow idle and get used to going from house to house and engaging in gossip. Younger widows should try to remarry and cultivate virtue. What strikes me about this advice is that Paul is counseling about those poor who are closest to God’s heart — and look at how many precautions he takes. How careful should we be before we put someone on a government list? What are we really doing to people when we extend our lists?

R&L: We often hear about our responsibilities to the poor and needy. The notion of discriminate giving implies that those who receive aid also have responsibilities and duties. Can you elaborate on this?

Olasky: The poor have duties like the rest of us. If widows have duties, then how much more so do people who are able-bodied and young? Not to recognize the responsibilities of the poor is to fail to treat them as persons. Just because someone is in need of money or some other service does not mean that he is completely incapable of any productive behavior.

There are things which can be done in the way of reciprocal relationships. We have a church here in Austin, it meets in a rented space, a large empty hall. Typically, on Sunday morning we have to place several hundred folding chairs. If a homeless man calls us and wants a handout, we tell him the most important thing we can give him is the gospel, and we want him to come and be part of our church. We explain to him that as he gets to meet people he will get to know their needs and they his. These are the types of things that will develop. If he is serious about needing material help he will come in an hour early and help us put up chairs. In this manner the person preserves his self-esteem and develops relationships that provide the context for true compassion.


Dr. Marvin Olasky is senior fellow at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, editor-in-chief of the World News Group, and dean of the World Journalism Institute. 

Marvin Olasky also holds the Distinguished Chair in Journalism and Public Policy at Patrick Henry College.