The state of poverty fighting in America

Compassion | Four examples of compassion, four axioms concerning welfare, and four predictions
by Marvin Olasky
Posted 9/01/18, 11:42 am

Voting for the winner of the 2018 Hope Awards for Effective Compassion has one week to go. If you haven’t already read about the regional winners and voted, please visit our Hope Awards page by Sept. 8 and vote for whichever of the Final Five moves you the most.

To warm you up more for that effort, here is a transcript of a talk about helping the poor I gave four years ago at a national conference of philanthropists.

It’s a pleasure to be here today. Last time I spoke at or before the Philanthropy Roundtable annual meeting was in 1998. That was a time when compassionate conservatism was a hot new idea. Now it’s more like the old man dying in his bed who smells his favorite odor, that of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. He gathers his strength. He creeps out of bed, over to the kitchen. There he sees a heavenly sight: row upon row of freshly backed chocolate chip cookies. He stretches out his withered hand. As his fingers touch the edge of a cookie, he can almost taste that heavenly taste—but down on his hand comes a spatula, wielded by his wife. “Stay out of those cookies,” she roars. “They’re for the funeral.”

Back in 1998 it was easy to be optimistic about welfare reform. This year brings the 20th anniversary of the Republican Revolution of 1994. I look back at it now the way William Wordsworth wrote about the beginning of the French Revolution: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive.” Well, we all know how the changes of 1789 led to the guillotine and then dictatorship. The result of welfare reform, the one big achievement of the Republican Congress of 1995 and 1996, isn’t all that much better.

Yes, we changed the name of one program from Aid to Families with Dependent Children to Temporary Aid to Needy Families. Yes, the number of people on AFCD/TANF fell sharply and has stayed relatively low—but we’ve had a huge increase in the number of people within federal disability programs and in the Supplementary Nutrition Assistance Program—food stamps. It was clear after a few years that transforming welfare is a marathon. It’s clear that Republicans went into a victory walk after the first mile.

So where are we now? What signs of hope regarding poverty fighting remain in our disillusioned society? My own experience over the past nine years comes out of awards WORLD Magazine gives each year, the Hope Awards for Effective Compassion. We’ve found some good ministries that offer challenging, personal, and spiritual help. They usually start with one person thinking about how he can use his talents and experiences to help others. I’ll give you four simple examples: one from Philadelphia, one from Atlanta, one from a town south of Nashville, one from Connecticut.

What signs of hope regarding poverty fighting remain in our disillusioned society?

Philadelphia: Rock Ministries in the very rough Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia. Buddy Osbourne, a stocky, bald, eighth-grade dropout founded it. He had been a champion amateur boxer with no dad. Boxing encouraged what Osbourne calls his underlying “propensity for violence.” When he says that, he smiles and his eyes all but disappear into his face. Osbourne found a job that gave his violence free reign: He became a “union organizer” (even today he can’t say the words without a sly smile). The federal government recognized his talent and indicted him for racketeering. He served five years in prison.

Osbourne in prison became a Christian. When he got out he purchased a long-abandoned store in Kensington. He decided to use the allure of boxing to let kids know what he had learned about life and faith. It worked in the city that was the setting for six Rocky movies. Osbourne says kids “come, they go, they come back. They know we’re always here. We’re a family. For some of these kids we’re their only family.” And when they realize that there’s a life for them beyond drug selling or racketeering, and it’s a life of meaning, everything changes. Without God, the kids are into immediate thrills. Next week? Fuhgeddaboudit. With God, they start thinking long term.

A second story, from this year: Maury United Ministries of Maury County, Tenn., an hour’s drive south of Nashville, focuses on one simple but crucial endeavor: giving rides to people without transportation, and in the process, building relationships. Its founder and executive director, Randy Nichols, now a retired mechanical designer, has run MUMs for 17 years: part time for seven, full time for the last 10. He coordinates 5,000 trips per year, connecting 25 volunteers with car-less neighbors who need rides to work, job training, a doctor’s office, GED classes, or day care. The goal, Nichols says, is to “show the love of Christ while providing for transportation needs.”

The MUMs idea grew out of Nichols’ Bible-reading and self-appraisal: “I’m not a great speaker and I’m not charismatic, so I looked for something I could do. I started praying.” He thought about transportation needs and recruited volunteer drivers: a day a month. “We had drivers from lots of different churches.” My wife and I asked some of the drivers why they do it. The answer was the answer to every question in Sunday school: Jesus.

Third example, from last year’s Hope Awards contest: Beltline Bike Shop in Atlanta. Beltline had its informal start in 2008 when Tim and Becky O’Mara moved to a South Atlanta neighborhood. He’s 41 and owns a video production company. She worked at a church. They wanted to be good neighbors but had no plan to “do ministry” in the neighborhood.

One day they were walking their dog in a park across the street from their house. They saw a little black girl they knew, Brittany. She owned a bike but wasn’t riding it because it had flat, worn-out tires. They offered to help fix the bike if Brittany would do some chores around their house to pay for the new tires and tubes. She did that for three weeks, the O’Mara’s came through on their promise, and Brittany was thrilled.

The O’Maras enjoyed her excitement and began putting word out to folks in churches: If you have bikes you’re outgrowing, we’ll take them off your hands. As bikes came in, the O’Maras invited kids to earn them, if they were willing to do odd jobs, including picking up trash in the local park. Once kids owned bikes, they came to the O’Maras for help with flat tires and loose chains. Before long, on Saturday mornings, Becky said, “Our driveway looked like an old parts junk yard with 20-30 kids repairing their bikes or helping others.”

The ripples kept expanding. Before kids could earn a bike, the O’Maras tried to meet their parents or grandparents. The park was cleaner and more kids were outside riding bikes. The bikes became a way for neighbors to connect. By last year, kids had earned 257 bikes, repaired 2,744, and picked up 830 bags of trash. Kids take their developing work ethics into the neighborhood. During spring break, the O’Maras noticed many 12-, 13-, and 14-year-olds out looking for jobs—walking dogs, cleaning houses, digging ditches, digging gardens. Tim said it’s a “natural result of earning bikes.”

The kids also ask why the O’Maras do what they do. That’s when they tell them about Jesus. Same thing at Rock Ministries and Maury United Ministries. Similar things at about 90 other ministries I’ve visited. I look for replicable projects: Simple but effective programs that folks without rocket science backgrounds or wheelbarrows of cash can create in their own neighborhoods.

The kids also ask why the O’Maras do what they do. That’s when they tell them about Jesus.

I promised four examples, so here’s one more. It’s not a Hope Awards winner, because it goes back 341 years to Fairfield, Conn., in 1673. Minutes of town council meeting: “Seriant Squire and Sam Morehouse agreed to take care of Roger Knaps family in this time of their great weakness.” This was the typical action of local governments back then: Enlist two families to show mercy toward a third. That was the way things worked in America for two centuries. I wrote about these.

Thinking about the O’Maras in Atlanta reminds me of Booker T. Washington’s famous Atlanta speech in 1895, where he told the story of a sea captain whose sailing ship was becalmed off the coast of Brazil, right where the Amazon flows into the Atlantic, and the sailors and passengers were out of drinking water. That ship just wouldn’t move, so he signaled to another ship, please send us some drinking water. The signal came back: Cast down your bucket where you are. He didn’t understand that but he followed directions, threw down the bucket, and up it came not with salt water but fresh, drinkable water.

So great was the flow of the Amazon that it was propelling fresh water into the salty Atlantic. So great is the flow of charity from Americans who see a problem and in quiet, humble ways do something about it, that streams of fresh water push out into the salty, dead sea of dependency.

We used to know this as Americans. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about it. (Long ago, when I was a bored speechwriter for the CEO and president of the DuPont Company, I inserted a de Tocqueville quote in 10 straight speeches, until the executive caught on.) Now we pay our taxes or donate money to have purported experts take care of the problems. The Republican revolution of 1994 really didn’t change the top-down welfare system. It temporarily made it better, but the improvement was short-lived because the welfare system remained unchanged.

So, having told four stories, I now want to suggest four axioms concerning welfare.

First comes what I’d call the law of conservation of welfare: One program has fewer people, another program has more. AFDC/TANF down, disability and food stamps up. Despite lots of talk of reform, that statis is likely to continue.

Second axiom: I’d call this the law of Democratic welfare expansion. The amount of welfare rises not according to need but according to available money to spend. Franklin Roosevelt’s administration learned the political advantages of welfare: TAX TAX SPEND SPEND ELECT ELECT. It’s too good a liberal vote-getter for liberals to give up, even though they know it doesn’t work.

Third axiom: The law of Republican welfare retention. George W. Bush became president in 2001 on a campaign of compassionate conservatism. I still really like the guy, but he didn’t change the system. His administration temporarily made it a bit more rational and less biased against religion-based groups, but the top-down system remained in place and the small improvements didn’t last long. That’s because effective poverty fighting is challenging, personal, and spiritual, but government programs are enabling. They are bureaucratic. They attempt to banish God. We can chip away at this, but that’s the nature of governmental programs, and given legitimate concerns about the separation of church and state, I’ve learned there’s no way for them to radically improve.

Fourth axiom: Gresham’s law says bad money drives out good, and what I once pridefully called Olasky’s law is parallel: Bad charity drives out good. Good programs are starved as governmental programs vacuum up dollars. Maybe I’ll rename this Grinch’s law and it will get more traction. The poor become not only victims but also perpetrators, because they learn to expect getting something for nothing. I’ve eaten at free food places where folks won’t even bus their trays. I’ve seen clothing used with little regard for longevity because there’s always more.

Bad charity drives out good.

So: conservation of welfare, welfare expansion by Democrats, welfare retention by Republicans, and bad charity driving out good. That leads me to my conclusion, with four predictions.

Prediction one: Compassionate conservatism is mostly dead, but it will arise again in some form as long as Christianity is around in some form, because Jesus was the word’s greatest teacher about compassion and demonstrator of it in practice. At WORLD, we’ll still be able to find great local examples of compassion, year after year—and we’ll try to keep at it. Meanwhile, if Republicans get elected, some will talk a good game but not much will happen, so effective poverty fighting is still up to local churches, civic organizations, and philanthropists.

Prediction two: The welfare system will probably have a hard landing as the annual trillion dollar bill points us toward bankruptcy. When we don’t have any choice, we’ll remember the truths that Americans learned from the 1620s through the 1920s: Challenging, personal, spiritual help. The last is particularly important: We can’t fight poverty successfully if we’re also fighting God. In 1957, Golda Meir, who later became Israel’s prime minister, spoke at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. She said, “Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.” Later, the sadness of that became literally true when some haters of Israel turned their children into suicide bombers. There’s a parallel here in poverty fighting: Progress will come when some progressives will love the poor more than they hate God.

Third, when there is sufficient will we will find a way to harness the internet to recreate more person-to-person help. I’ve been thinking about Airbnb, where folks rent out rooms, and Uber, where folks rent out cars. How can people who are willing to help but aren’t rich make rooms in their homes available to people who need them? The would-be helpers can’t afford to do it for nothing, and the people who need help can’t afford to pay. There’s room for foundation that would use Airbnb and Uber techniques to make a match, and figure out a way to expedite the process without doing so much that gold diggers would give it a bad name. If you’re interested in thinking about this, let me know.

Fourth prediction: At some point we’ll also learn and apply the wisdom of C.S. Lewis, who said that when we strive for heaven we get earth thrown in, but when we strive for earth we get nothing. I’ve seen for 25 years that people who come out of poverty do so because they have gained a long-term perspective. People who don’t, fail, because they keep thinking day-to-day or hour-to-hour. There’s a theological connection: For those who believe in God, everything matters, but for those who don’t, nothing matters. We tell people they are just the product of time plus chance, so nothing is truly significant, and we’re surprised when they just try to eke out some pleasure day by day. This problem of meaninglessness, by the way, is as frequent among the rich as among the poor.

Progress will come when some progressives will love the poor more than they hate God.

If you’re interested in discussing this, let me know. Right now I’ll conclude with another funeral story. It’s about three old men discussing what they want people to say at their respective funerals. One says, “As they file by my casket, I want them to say, ‘Look, he was a good man.’” Another says, “As they file by my casket, I want them to say, ‘Look, he was a kind man.’” The third says, “As they file by my casket, I want them to say, ‘Look, he’s moving.’”

Effective compassion is only mostly dead. It can still move, with your help. Thank you very much.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is World View: Seeking Grace and Truth in Our Common Life. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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  • Tabitha
    Posted: Sat, 09/01/2018 02:43 pm

    Deeply true but also witty; now I understand that mischievous smile in your photo ;-D


  • DakotaLutheran
    Posted: Sat, 09/01/2018 06:19 pm

    I don't know if this picture of communal compassion is distinctly Christian, but it is exactly what I've been peddling for many years to both my liberal and conservative friends, for it isn't only "liberals" who need to hear this. There are two chief problems I ask myself: First, can it really work? My understanding of this is vocational: it follows upon our encountering our neighbor; and this means that it is local, hand to hand. For the most part this will mean the poor helping the poor. Now I happen to think this notion is revolutionary. It changes the poor. But is it sufficient? And this gets to the second problem: is there enough funding for progress? The problem, however, as Olasky points out, is not only fiscal. It is attitudinal also. And it is this latter that is most harmed by our present welfare system. To address the attitudinal requires time. It requires active participation of individuals and communities. But it is slow, generationally slow. As such it requires faith that it will succeed. Our temptation is to do it for them who can't do for themselves. On the  other hand, it is next to impossible to imagine progress being any slower than it has been since the War on Poverty.

  • NBrooks
    Posted: Sun, 09/02/2018 01:27 pm

    I appreciate so much your heart and the way you have used your gifts, Mr. Olasky.  This is very encouraging, inspiring, convicting.  An ongoing discussion would be wonderful.


    Posted: Wed, 09/05/2018 01:58 pm

    Thank you for the deep and accurate insights into society and the heart of man. For those of use who are focused on the call to the widow and the orphan, a picture of all those in need, I am greatly encouraged the graceful presentation of truth. Our company's purpose is to radicially diminish poverty. It is hard to see the efforts of business and effective poverty prevention and fighting organizations be erased by government actions. 


    I would like to continue the conversation with you as offered. See you in Seattle this weekend. 

  • Lisa Pittsburgh
    Posted: Tue, 12/18/2018 12:11 pm

    I do think a lot of Christians are helping as individuals. My mom who is 88 gives rides and regularly makes meals for people in need. But people like her are off your “grid”.

    We housed a homeless woman last year while she took a 10 month course on medical coding. That was last year and she hasn’t worked since. She promptly went on disability. She doesn’t know why she is on it.  A social worker at my church says he has noticed that it’s hard for people to give welfare or disability up for a better paying job because they see them as free.

    It’s a tough system to get out of. They need to work on transitioning people better.

    Also can we agree there is no real poverty in the USA? A trip to Haiti where there are communal bathrooms for a village will prove that. Poor people here have cell phones and cable TV.