The tragedies of compassionate conservatism

Effective Compassion | Can the faith-based poverty-fighting initiative make a comeback?
by Marvin Olasky
Posted 4/14/18, 11:52 am

Editor’s note: WORLD editor in chief Marvin Olasky gave this talk at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., on March 29.

Thanks for inviting me. In the next 20 minutes I want to give you five understandings that defined compassionate conservatism in the early 1990s. Then, five promising events and trends in the late 1990s. Third, five problems that killed compassionate conservatism in the early 2000s. I’ll conclude by noting what it will take to revive it. But I want to start with a tribute to one mostly forgotten Washingtonian.

When thinking about an abstract subject I try to bring it down to ground level by keeping a particular person in mind. So I will tell you about the greatest poverty fighter I ever knew, Hannah Hawkins. For 30 years, starting in 1985, she ran the Children of Mine Youth Center 5 miles southeast of here in Anacostia. That’s the part of Washington tourist guides ignore.

During visits over two decades, this short African-American woman taught me to look beneath the surface of glowing programs. On one visit she had just come back from a government-sponsored meeting about southeast Washington revitalization. She fumed, “The beautiful people were there, looking for money. Just like the War on Poverty, money went into the pockets of the greedy. These folks are ready to clean up—unless stuff gets funky. Then they call me in to be the cleanup person.”

The old building that housed Children of Mine was crowded. The roof sometimes leaked. A realistic soundtrack for her program would feature chattering kids but also police sirens and, occasionally, gunshots. But Hannah scowled about opportunities to send kids to nice facilities. She’d get invitations for them to show up on days when officials were visiting nonprofits. Those charity managers wanted to create the illusion of vibrant activity.

Why did children flock to her when she commanded them, “Wash those dirty hands”? I watched her tell a preteen, “Your armpits stink. Wash them before you come tomorrow.” The boy meekly said, “Yes, ma’am.” He and others obeyed because most of the adults they knew were selfish, but Miz Hawkins wanted what was best for them. She said, “I ain’t easy to deal with, but my children know I love them and care about them.” She tried to bring them “from disgrace to grace.”

She often gave kids maxims such as, “Stay on the street called straight. … People who pick fights end up dead or in jail.” She would not accept government money because she then could not have prayer. Besides, when she once agreed to take federally supplied meals, “The milk was warm, the tacos were cold, and the watermelon was sour.”

Hannah, a handful of volunteers, and some donors made it possible for her to lead Bible studies, tutor children, and give them grammar lessons along with meals: “I need one person to tell me what a verb is.” Money was tight, but she hated waste and told of official anger when she didn’t give milk to children who didn’t want milk: “They said I didn’t give the children complete meals. I said I wanted to teach the children not to waste.” Hannah scorned the government response: “Give it to them anyway. Give them a complete meal, and let them throw it in the trash.”

I could go on, but you get the picture. Three years ago Hannah Hawkins died of cancer. The point of everything I’ve written about poverty fighting is to help the hundreds of almost-Hannahs I’ve met around the country. I agree with Hannah about the billions of dollars we waste by providing stuff that is thrown into the trash. More importantly, dozens of federal programs encourage people to throw their own lives into the trash.

Here are the five understandings that were crucial to the growth of compassionate conservative approaches in the early and mid-1990s:

  1. People are poor for a variety of reasons: Some are structural (bad schools, de-industrializing economy, racism). Some are personal (drug or alcohol use, mental illness, blame-others worldview, unwillingness to work). Anyone who tells you it’s all one or the other is blowing smoke.
  2. Government can be efficient in sending out checks: Social Security is a prime example. Government but does a poor job in dealing with personal problems. That’s partly because of bureaucracy. It’s also because those personal problems involve values and values come from religion. We are rightly worried about government promoting or opposing particular religious views.
  3. It’s good to honor points of light, but American history tells us that charity groups based in religious understanding can be more than points. In the past they have illuminated every city with charity that was challenging, personal, and spiritual. Conventional histories of poverty fighting disparage those efforts, but they were more effective than recent governmental programs in helping people climb out of poverty.
  4. The Depression overwhelmed some of these charities. The federal government set up parallel secular programs. Over time those became bureaucracies that grew year after year as they enabled people to remain poor. With a steady income from taxpayers they crowded out organizations that relied on contributions. Many people thought there was no need to volunteer: Professional social workers were taking care of problems. But with growing caseloads those social workers mainly shuffled paper.
  5. More reliable funding for charity groups should not depend on getting more grants from Washington, for two reasons. First, officials are not the best judges of what works and what does not: We need to empower people with intimate knowledge of the programs. Second, insofar as many of the most effective groups are religious, governmental involvement is inherently a problem.

When Republicans in 1995 gained a majority of the House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years, it was possible to turn those historical and sociological understandings into public policy. Here are five things that happened:

  1. Republicans transformed one program by turning AFDC, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, into TANF, Temporary Aid to Needy Families. Temporary meant establishing time limits. Needy meant creating work requirements for those who could work and concentrating aid on those who could not. Congress passed that reform measure. Bill Clinton reluctantly signed it into law.
  2. Bill Clinton also signed into law what became known as “charitable choice.” That said religious organizations are eligible for federal grants as long as those grants do not subsidize religious activities. I wasn’t thrilled with this legislation because I naively thought that religious organizations were supposed to be religious.
  3. Reps. J.C. Watts and Jim Talent introduced an American Community Renewal Act (ACRA) that would have, among other things, given individual taxpayers a tax credit of 75 cents for every dollar they contributed to local poverty-fighting organizations, up to $200. I liked ACRA because those who claimed the tax credit would have to volunteer personally with the charity. In doing so they would develop a greater sense of “ownership” in solving local problems. Sen. Dan Coats introduced a similar bill that proposed a tax credit for contributions of up to $1,000 for taxpayers filing jointly. Those measures did not succeed. One argument against them was that itemizers would merely switch their donations to the more powerful tax credit column.
  4. Some good things happened at the local level. Mayor Steve Goldsmith’s Indianapolis provided the best examples. He set up a Front Porch Alliance that helped community groups overcome governmental barriers. For example, a church wanted to turn a patch of ground adjacent to it into a playground. Prostitutes used it and the church needed help with legal complexities. The city provided that help.
  5. Good things happened in some states. Here’s the story of how George W. Bush became involved. In 1995 an Austin bureaucracy, the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse (TCADA), tried to shut down Teen Challenge of South Texas.

The problem, according to TCADA: Teen Challenge counselors had not sat in classrooms for 78 hours of formal counselor training. It didn’t matter that Teen Challenge on a shoestring was more effective than government programs that per person cost more than a year at Harvard or Yale. Bob Woodson, the former AEI fellow who turns 81 next week, set up a rally for Teen Challenge at the Alamo, with great Texas symbolism.

I wrote about TCADA vs. Teen Challenge in the magazine I edit, WORLD, and asked readers to send cards and letters to the governor’s mansion in Austin. They did. Then I wrote a column in The Wall Street Journal. More messages piled up. Then a call came from the governor’s office: Could you come by the governor’s mansion for lunch and explain what was going on? Sure. Gov. Bush, probably because of his own experience in fighting alcohol, got it right away. He supported Teen Challenge. He told TCADA to stand down. He then supported bills the Texas legislature passed to keep bureaucrats off the backs of other groups.

That, for me, was compassionate conservatism. Liberate what Edmund Burke called the little platoons, what Alexis de Tocqueville called America’s volunteer spirit. In 1999 I had some minor involvement in a speech W gave in Indianapolis. The Washington Post called it “the most elaborate definition to date of his ‘compassionate conservative’ credo.” The Post accurately summarized the speech, “Bush said he would dedicate $8 billion… for tax incentives to encourage people to contribute to charities and community groups.”

That’s exactly what we needed: decentralized compassionate conservatism. Indianapolis Mayor Steve Goldsmith was Bush’s top domestic policy adviser during the presidential campaign. Goldsmith was also a little platoons, bottom-up guy, so I felt confident that W would stick to what he had proclaimed.

Liberate what Edmund Burke called the little platoons, what Alexis de Tocqueville called America’s volunteer spirit.

In 2001, though, five surprises intervened. I’ll tell you what I believe happened, but I haven’t gone back to interview the principal players. I hope to do so at some point, and in the meantime any of you who know more about what happened should correct me.

First, early in 2001 Goldsmith lost favor with some key Bush staffers. I’ve heard gossip but don’t know why. Suddenly John DiIulio, a professor who had been an adviser to Al Gore, gained the nod as head of the new Office on Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. That made sense politically. George W. Bush was president-elect without a mandate, so reaching out to Democrats like DiIulio was important. Some had looked at the faith-based initiative as a Bush attempt to get federal money to evangelical churches, so the appointment of John, a Catholic, undercut that speculation. Plus, John is smart and funny.

But the appointment had a big downside: John was not at all a decentralizer. He thought federal grant-making in the poverty area had been poorly handled. He wanted to do a much better job evaluating programs. He did not favor charity tax credits or other decentralizing approaches.

The second surprise, which followed naturally from the first: The Bush administration, contrary to what Gov. Bush had said in 1999, deemphasized tax credits. It stuck with a centralized grant approach. That did not promote little platoons. It quickly became a political mistake as well. Once John emphasized grant-making, the controversial question of eligibility came to the fore. Should federal money go to groups that had Bible study and prayer as integral parts of their programs?

When John first said no, evangelicals rebelled. I heard that Karl Rove forced John to reverse his position. When evangelical groups were eligible, atheists, agnostics, liberal Protestants, and some Catholics rebelled. The political charm of tax credits is that individuals make the decision. When grant-making is centralized, Dad makes the decision. One of the children is highly likely to say, it’s not fair.

Third: Once the Bush administration stuck with centralization, the key question for the press was how much money it was spending. When the total amount of grant money did not explode, reporters declared compassionate conservatism to be a political hoax. When some organization did announce a new grant, the issue was who was in and who was out. Part of the tragedy here is that tax credits could have been a bipartisan push. Conservative Republican Rep. Mark Souder told me two liberal Democrats, Bobby Scott and Chet Edwards, were willing to co-sponsor a bill to that effect—but that never happened. Instead, Bush administration folks asked Souder to stand down, and he did.

Some Bush folks gave me the reason. In 2001 a balanced budget seemed like a big thing—we’re much more sophisticated now. Bush folks had to choose between two items that would cut government revenue: estate tax reform or charity tax credits. If a Republican administration has to choose between those two items, guess which is likely to interest big political donors?

Fourth, once the faith-based office emphasized grant-making, bureaucratic organizations that knew how to push paper had a big advantage. Since the idea of helping the little guys still remained, guess what emerged as the big way to help them: Yup, teach local leaders how to apply for grants. That flipped compassionate conservatism on its head. Instead of fighting bureaucracy, it was building bureaucracy.

Fifth, when John DiIulio resigned at the end of August 2001, the possibility of righting the program remained—but a week and a half later came 9/11. George W. Bush moved from being a domestic-oriented president emphasizing compassion to a war president emphasizing fighting back. War and compassion don’t go together well. War is hell. War is also expensive. Democratic lawmakers then as now wanted more money for social spending. To get money for war Bush increased money for welfare. Many Republicans equated compassionate conservatism concept with government spending. Compassionate conservatism equals big government conservatism. Compassionate conservatism is a left-wing thing.

Instead of fighting bureaucracy, it was building bureaucracy.

I’ve gone through that quickly, but here are copies of an article from 2001 that delved into the political nuances. Hope did not completely die with 9/11. John’s successors tried some decentralization within the grants approach. They had far better judgment than their predecessors. They tried some voucher programs. But Washington still controlled the money. The basic structure remained, but with increased spending. It was a tragedy for the poor, for taxpayers, and for those who hoped for real reform.

Can compassionate conservatism make a comeback? On one public policy question, we do have a splendid opportunity now. One critique of a poverty-fighting tax credit in the 1990s was that the federal government was already promoting charitable giving with tax deduction incentives. Those led about 30 percent of Americans to itemize taxes. Now, tax experts think the GOP’s recent tax reform, by doubling the standard deduction, will reduce the percentage of those who use the itemized deduction to about 5 percent. That diminishes fears that a tax credit would merely lead people to shift money from one giving category to another.

But the larger question is whether millions of Americans have the will to follow the example of Hannah Hawkins. WORLD every year hands out Hope Awards for Effective Compassion, so our reporters and I have seen thousands of volunteers sacrificing for others—but we need millions. Compassion doesn’t come naturally. The Hannahs of the world love others because God first loved them. The current trend toward declining religious involvement also means declining compassion. One thing is clear fiscally and socially: If we continue on our present welfare-expanding path, we’re heading for a crack-up. We need a new reformation. God only knows whether we will have one.

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books: His latest is Abortion at the Crossroads. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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  • usefull
    Posted: Sat, 04/14/2018 02:28 pm

    You said so little about Hannah Hawkins, yet you said enough to showcase her greatness.  May her legacy carry on forever and ever.

  • One of Many
    Posted: Sat, 04/14/2018 03:11 pm

    Saturday series is one of my favorite features.  Our daughter read God & Government by Chuck Colson for school this year and is very interested in how to develop her little platoon.  The constraints of beauracracy seem overwhelming even if the money does not come from gov't.

  • nevertheless
    Posted: Sun, 04/15/2018 08:41 am

    As to the problem of government bureaucracies literally destroying local compassionate choices, the implementation of Obamacare is an excellent example. Are there any WORLD exposes' on this issue? Also, tax credits are great, but personal involvement that goes beyond government involvement might be better. For example: giving that isn't dependent upon receiving tax breaks. Perhaps only revival that leads a greater percentage of individuals to give to their neighbor? This is an amazingly complex issue in 2018 America. I think the tipping point politically is the percentage of the population that relies on the government is some way, shape of form. That demographic has less incentive to turning the system upside down because it threatens their bowl of rice.

  •  Brendan Bossard's picture
    Brendan Bossard
    Posted: Sun, 04/15/2018 07:45 pm

    The governmental cash cow fitfully gives without compassion.  We Christ-followers need to train ourselves to depend less on her than we do.  This means giving time and money even when we get no tax credit or endorsement for it.

  •  GEORGE A DAMOFF's picture
    Posted: Mon, 04/16/2018 11:24 am

    Thank you for sharing this!

  •  BOB JR's picture
    BOB JR
    Posted: Mon, 04/16/2018 07:59 pm

    I agree that government welfare fails the very people it is trying to help.

    Placing social security with welfare is a mistake. If the government had not put the social security funds into the general fund, social security would be solvent on it's own.  I'm 83 and have paid into social security from 1951 until 2016, except for 6years.


    Bob H