Olasky has written an eye-opening book about how to effectively fight poverty. It is not a how-to manual, but rather a look through the history of America to see what people have done and what has worked—a chronicle of American charity. It turns out that our ineffective modern welfare state came about through shifting views on the nature of man. Prior to the twentieth century, public opinion generally held that man was basically evil, and lifting people out of poverty required reforming their character. Charities that took this view in the 1800s were very effective. As the public opinion began to feel that man is basically good, it became the State’s duty to make sure that people were put in a social environment where their (alleged) natural goodness would come out. This basically meant giving them money, instead of giving them time as in previous ages. Olasky shows that this is not working, and advocates a return to tough-love, character-reforming charities of the past.

Early American Charity

In the days of the American colonies, charity emphasized giving time to those who were unable to care for themselves and giving relief in kind (not cash) to the deserving poor. The deserving poor were those who had no ability to help themselves, nor any family or friends who could do so. Applicants were investigated to determine if they were truly needy. Drunkness was not tolerated, and recipients were required to work, in accordance with the apostle Paul’s teaching that “If a man will not work, he shall not eat” (2 Thessalonians 3:10). Care was taken to prevent pauperization—making someone dependent on charity. Emphasis was also placed on the need for God to regenerate those whose sinful attitudes and actions had reduced them to poverty. This situation continued into the early 1800s, where travellers to the United States remarked on the lack of beggars and the charitability of the population. By contrast, London in the late 1700s provided what Olasky terms “outdoor relief:" monetary aid given by the government to those eligible; travellers to London were astonished at the number of beggars and how they treated the aid as a right. The well-travelled Ben Franklin said that “there is no country in the world in which the poor are more idle, dissolute, drunken, and insolent” than Britain because of the British Welfare Act.

In Colonial America, towns were small and everyone knew everyone else. The rise of cities in the 1800s and the resulting loss of closeness required charities to be more thorough in investigating who was really needy. In Britain, Thomas Chalmers divided Glasgow into regions to make charity investigations more tractable and met with great success. Olasky documents the success of some of the charities in the U.S. that followed his model. Similarly, caring for orphans became more difficult as cities grew larger. A large house that provided food, clothes, and shelter for orphans simply did not meet their need to for parental love and guidance. So Charles Brace arranged for children to be sent to the countryside to live with a family. In return for caring for the children as their own, the children would work part-time on the farm. This program was able to transform many of the orphans who had bad habits into responsible adults.

The First People-Are-Good Challenge

Most people of the time felt that government was unable to discern whether applicants were needy, so the government did little outdoor relief. Those that did were generally seen as ineffective: a report on a Philadelphia program to give aid to mothers with illegitimate children noted that Philadephia had 269 such mothers but Baltimore, a city without such a program had none. Furthermore, the report criticized the program because the recipients saw it as a right, were insolent, and did not have their characters changed. For similar reasons, President Pierce vetoed a bill that would set up mental hospitals on the grounds that if the government became involved it would reduce charity.

However, Social Universalists soon challenged aid for only the deserving poor. Universalists, as represented by the well-known writer Horace Greely, believed that people are naturally good and that everyone had a right to salvation and prosperity. Greely advocated that people should move to communes, so that their natural goodness would emerge when placed in a healthy environment. The “Social Gospel” advocated by Greelyites provided a moral foundation that competed with the Biblical foundation that most charities worked under. It provided a moral foundation for outdoor relief—we should give people aid to relieve poverty because they deserve it and because their character will improve when they are no longer poor. Opponents warned of pauperization and feared that bad charity (outdoor relief) would drive out good charity. But many governmental programs for outdoor relief sprang up anyway.

As predicted by opponents, recipients became pauperized—dependent on the aid. In New York City, where much outdoor relief was given (in large part to keep Boss Tweed’s party in power), by the 1870s about 10% of the city’s population was receiving aid! In fact, even Horace Greely was so disgusted with the situation that he reversed his opinion:

The beggars of New York are at once very numerous and remarkably impudent.’ ... [and] concluded that from his ‘extensive, protracted experience’ that, ‘the poor often suffer from poverty, I know; but oftener from lack of capacity, skill, management, efficiency, than lack of money. Here is an empty-handed youth who wants [money, but] he is far more certain to set resolutely to work without than with that pleasant but baneful accommodation. Make up a square issue,—"Work or starve!"—and he is quite likely to choose work.

Furthermore, bad charity did indeed drive out good charity. When people say how recipients of outdoor relief abused the system, they became disenchanted and became much less willing to give. In fact, the social reaction was so strong that there arose a movement called the Social Darwinists who said that the poor were incurably lazy and corrupt, and that society would be better off without them. Biblically minded charities pointed out that God regenerates all people and continued their emphasis on programs that put people in a position to be changed by God. Charities made a stronger effort to research applicants, and successful charities generally required a work test. Applications were required to chop wood for an hour or so (this was before central heating), or if they were women, to sew garments that would be given to the needy. Those who refused to work were clearly not interested in being reformed. Volunteers were encouraged to have compassion, that is, to suffer with those they helped—to spend time with them.

Charities along this line were so successful in fighting back poverty that by the turn of the century, although much poverty still remained, society felt that eliminating poverty was possible. But while Biblically based charities focused on changing one person at a time, this was too slow for many, who felt that it would be better done en masse. The Social Universalists wanted to change the world, not individuals. Their goal was not to see character reformed, but lives made more wealthy and lives made more comfortable. This was easily quantifiable and thus something that government could do; indeed, to effect mass change, the government would be required.

The first decades of the twentieth century saw a slow change in attitude. Whereas previously the societal attitude had been that only the worthy poor should be helped, not the irresponsible poor, society began to feel that everyone had a right to wealth and comfort. And where previously charities placed importance on suffering with the poor, social workers began to view themselves as “professionals.” Volunteers had once lived in the large houses run by some charities, but now volunteers refused to live in the same communities as their “clients.” The poor began to be a number, rather than a person. Furthermore, an attitude began to develop that only the professionals could properly serve the poor, so volunteers began to be relegated to desk jobs, which reduced the incentive to volunteer. All the while, government programs were expanding as child welfare laws were passed.

The Depression caused a large increase in need. However, society generally felt that it was shameful to be on “the dole,” so most of the relief required work. In fact, most people sought help from family, friends, and neighbors before applying for WPA programs. This left people like Donald Howard yearning for a time when people weren’t so old fashioned:

Howard was in the mainstream of new social work thinking; ... like many of his colleagues, Howard wanted relief to be depersonalized and a structure of “rights” established, so that “no person would have the discretionary power to deny to any eligible applicant the aid to which he is entitled.” Like Grace Abbott, Howard opposed background checks and instead proposed that benefits ‘be paid upon a worker’s declaration that he was without work and that his family was of a given size, without recourse to humiliating investigations either of his own needs and resources or of those of close relatives. (p. 164)

The  Rise of the Welfare State

And change those attitudes did. As society began to view people as basically good—doing evil things sometimes, but not being evil—society saw poverty as caused by society, so it could be fixed by society. “Authors Elizabeth Wickenden and Winifred Bell ... opposed any emphasis on personal responsibility for economic problems: there should be no penalty for able-bodied and mentally competent individuals who, for whatever reason, were unable ‘to hold a job, to spend their money sensibly ... or otherwise rise to the challenges of social responsibility’” (p. 169). The theologically liberal National Council of Churches argued that the rich have a moral responsibility to give handouts (the National Association of Evangelicals continued to emphasize bringing people to Christ). The National Welfare Rights Organization spent a lot of time and effort telling people that it was better to take welfare than to take in laundry to make extra money. The problem was not themselves, but society and welfare would let them keep their dignity. Young lawers of the Office of Economic Opportunity’s Legal Services fought strongly for the NWRO’s causes. They got many rules struck down of the increasing welfare legislation: “Rules that welfare officials, without extensive hearings, could declare a person employable and require him to take a job, were struck down. Rules that women receiving AFDC could not have a ‘man in the house’ were struck down. Rules that recipients suspected of fraud had to answer questions of else face possible loss of subsidy, were struck down” (p. 181). Olasky even suggests a socialistic desire: “The law became a handmaiden of income transfer, and a way of battering anyone who stood in the way. ‘Justice’ equalled income redistribution, and government officials soon worked alongside protestors” (p. 182).

Predictably, this simply made the problem worse. Welfare rolls expanded so quickly that administrators were astonished. “Lyndon Johnson’s economic advisers warned in 1964 that the poverty rate, in the absence of federal action, could be as high as 13 percent by 1980. After sixteen years of multibillion-dollar programs, the poverty rate at the end of that year was—13 percent” (p. 185). Social mobility decreased because people became unwilling to give up a known income in exchange for the opportunity to become independent that carried some risk. Programs for teenage mothers destroyed bonds within families: a teenage mother was only eligible for welfare if she had her own apartment, but that meant leaving her family that could help care for the child and give her opportunities to advance herself. Pauperization increased: “A Christian Science Monitor interviewee noted that many of her pauperized associates remained poor because they were ‘satisfied’ on welfare: ‘If they’d rebel against it, they’d get out of it’” (p. 190). Programs to give handouts to the homeless actually increase homelessness: Dan McMurry notes that there are always people on the edge of poverty, and programs that give money to the homeless end up “pulling the weakest loose from the fabric of the community onto the pavement.” Perhaps most telling assessment is that “A half-century after the New Deal, Kentucky journalist John Pearce recalled, ‘I don’t think it ever occurred to any of us’ that the New Deal legacy would be ‘a welfare system that today supports millions who have neither prospect nor intention of earning their own living’” (p. 153).


Olasky does more than simply recount history, however. Drawing from the lessons of the successful charities, he suggests that successful charities must have seven elements: affiliation, bonding, categorization, discernment, employment, freedom, God. Affiliation reconnects the poor (particularly those who have run away from their problems) with their neighbors. Bonding re-placed people with their families, which would promote long-term change as a result of the family interactions. If people had no family, the charity volunteers became a surrogate family; this requires a substantial time committment to “suffer with”. Categorization and discernment are necessary to separate the deserving poor from the lazy poor. Charity should not be given without a requirement to work, with the objective of enabling recipients to find long-term employment. Finally, life change cannot happen without God.

Sprinkled throughout the book are quotations that address what Olasky terms the myth of homelessness, namely that the poor, the homeless are just like us, only down on their luck. In the early 1800s, “Baltimore Alms House officials claimed that ‘of the whole number admitted, more than three-fourths were positively ascertained to have been reduced to pauperism by intemperence.’” A group of Philadelphia officials visited five major cities and concluded that “From three-fourths to nine-tenths of the paupers in all parts of our country, may attribute their degradation to the vice of intemperence” (p. 46). Robert Hartley, secretary at The NY Association for  Improving the Condition of the Poor for over 30 years, discovered “the problem of alcoholism often was part of a bundle of spiritual and material problems. ... Hartley argued that since material deprivation was often the tip of the iceberg, ‘to remove the evil we must remove the causes; and these being chiefly moral—whatever subsidiary appliances may be used—they admit only moral remedies’” (p. 28). In our own time,

The Mumbling Majority of the homeless, however, are men who are alone, who have been told that it is fine to be alone, and who have become used to receiving subsidy in their chosen life-style. Most of the homeless—three fourths of all men in a Baltimore study conducted by clinicians from Johns Hopkins University—are substance abusers. Many of the homeless alcoholics have families, but do not want to be with them. Those who have been married have often abandonded their wives and children. Many of the homeless have had jobs, but they just do not want to stick to them; some prefer the freedom of having odd jobs and being able to move around. In Schiff’s psychiatric summary, “Almost all lack the sense of personal ‘structuruing’ necessary to maintain steady employment.” (p. 212) 1

Besides the many examples of charities he gives in the historical section, Olasky has some brief practial recommendations. He suggests that programs to help teenage mothers practice affiliation and bonding: give the mothers a family. He cites Jim and Anne Pierson, of House of Creation, who take in teenage mothers and live with them as a family, teaching by example healthy relational communication, conflict, and parenting skills, with an emphasis on Christ. For the homeless he recommends tough love. Gospel Mission in Washington, D.C. offers shelter to the homeless, but requires them to work and if they are abusive, requires them to leave until they have sobered up. They take pictures of residents passed out on the sidewalk to show (lovingly) that a grown man should act responsibly. And they point people to Christ. For the mentally-ill homeless, Olasky recommends asylum instead of handouts:

The solution to [the problem of the mentally ill] only seems difficult because of an [sic] pervasive unwillingness to categorize. But it is clear to anyone who walks the street that the insane homeless who are unable to help themselves desperately need asylum, both in the current meaning of that word and in its original meaning of safety. ... If we find a little girl wandering the streets at midnight, few of us will give her a chocolate chip cookie and feel that we have acted with compassion. Why should we act differently to others who are also lost in the dark? (p. 211)


This book gives an excellent perspective on helping the needy. He shows that, from the 1600s to the 1800s helping the needy meant giving aid to the poor who could not help themselves but wanted to become independent. He shows that charity work that assumes that people are basically not good and seeks to change character is consistently successful. He shows from the example of London in the 1790s, America in the 1850s, and today’s welfare state, how the assumption that people are basically good leads to outdoor relief that does not change character but creates dependency and a feeling of entitlement that makes the problem worse. Today “compassion” generally means “giving a handout,” yet Olasky shows that it originally meant “suffering with.” Originally helping the poor meant spending time teaching them skills and spending painstaking time developing character. For those who think that man is basically good and that money will fix the problem, Olasky invites them to examine the lessons of history. For those who understand that many of the poor are that way because of their sin, who are willing to show Christ’s tough love on an individual basis to those who will turn from their sin but who are willing to refuse help if they want to continue in their sin, who are willing to spend time suffering with the poor, Olaksy offers many examples of how people can be transformed. This was an unusually eye-opening book, presented with multitude of historical evidence and poignent comments. This book is a must-read for anyone who desires to help the poor.


Review: 9.5
The content is very clearly a 10. Olasky traces the thread of intellectual thought and it’s implications throughout history. He clearly identifies the ideas and demonstrates the effects with a multitude of examples. Readers new to the subject, however, will likely find practical steps lacking. The description of the principles occurs in the middle of the history, instead of at the end, and although he gives some examples of charities that follow the principles, this is not clearly pointed out. Nor is there a clear call for readers to reject ministries that do not follow these principles (although if readers do not feel an urge, they have problem not paid attention!). Sometimes the train of thought gets sidetracked by examples of effective charity. Will it be around in 100 years (my standard of excellence)? I am unsure: the writing is good, not great, but the research is superb, so I think there is a fair chance. Regardless, this topic is so necessary for today that I think this book is a must-read.

1  In a private communication in 2007, Myra Cross, who runs the Dreams Center in Austin, TX, communicated similar sentiments to this reviewer.