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The Tragedy of American Compassion

4.07  ·  Rating details ·  214 ratings  ·  34 reviews
Examines America's dismal welfare state and challenges the church to return to its biblical role as guardian of the poor.
Paperback, 320 pages
Published February 1st 1995 by Crossway Books (first published March 1st 1992)
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4.07  · 
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 ·  214 ratings  ·  34 reviews

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May 18, 2013 rated it it was amazing
More than anything else, this book refutes the frequent argument that government has to look after the indigent because private charity won't or doesn't know how. Olasky takes us through the full history of charity in this country, showing the ideas that shaped it at each step in it's devolution. Starting with the categorization of workhouses and almshouses, the frequency of woodyards and sewing rooms let charitable providers differentiate the truly needy from the truly lazy. He also points out ...more
Oct 20, 2016 rated it liked it
By far one of the most interesting non-fiction books I read last year was Life at the Bottom by Theodore Dalrymple. It presented a view of poverty that was provocative and challenging. In addition, its focus was on the ideas which create and perpetuate poverty, which is a little understood and often ignored element of the problem. The Tragedy of American Compassion takes a similar approach. The author, Marvin Olasky, seeks to delineate the pervasive ideas of those who combated poverty in the 18t ...more
Mar 04, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: american-culture
Olasky writes in great and well documented detail of the origins of welfare in America, and shows how welfare that works has seven major elements to it: affiliation with families, neighbors or ethnic groups; bonding with volunteers; careful categorization along with the realization that charities did not have to treat everyone equally; discernment on the part of charity workers, realizing the deviousness of the human heart, to prevent fraud; long-term employment of all able-bodied household head ...more
Bill Nohmer
Nov 18, 2008 rated it really liked it
Olasky outlines the history of 'compassion' for the downtrodden in the U.S. starting at the outset of the new nation. He outlines how the help came from neighbors, then from work houses and groups of people to, finally, the public coffers. This migration is not new. The English already had a form of welfare state at the founding of this nation. The fathers of our nation found it distasteful and damaging to those it was design to help. Look at us now!

Mr. Olasky took on the role of a homeless man
Jul 12, 2012 rated it it was amazing
This book is essential for anyone who wants to understand the history of American "compassion" to the poor. But more broadly, it is important to understand why "doing more" (or to move "forward" as Obama suggests), especially when "more" means furthering the expansion of government bureaucracy and involvement, is actually counterproductive and damaging to the poor. Personal aid with conditions (willing to work and reform character etc.) is the old style of American compassion rooted in the idea ...more
Feb 13, 2012 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: conservatives, liberals, libertartians, anarchists, voluntaryists
Recommended to Furbjr by: Gardner Goldsmith, El G Grande
This book shows how voluntary charity, as opposed through charity where alms are obtained through the point of a gun, are demonstrably better for society. There is a lot of citations in this book, which thoroughly documents the authors research on the topic. With such a body of evidence as collected by the author, it is hard to understand why the author draws the conclusion he does. This book, by far, provides the most comprehensive study of voluntary charity in the United States that I have eve ...more
Milan Homola
This is one of the most thought provoking books I've read...not that I agree with it....but that is what a good book makes you better by thinking about how you think and act. This is incredibly important for those of us serving in compassionate ministry or anything related....Such a great book
Sophia Lee
Feb 21, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: journalist, favorites
Finally read this book by my editor-in-chief, taking copious notes from page 1 to 320. Here's one quote: "Most of us are actually stingy, because we no longer offer the poor our time and a challenge. Our willingness to do so shows whether we care for hearts, minds, and souls, or just bodies." My editor-in-chief, everybody, dropping mic.
Outstanding treatment of the transformation of aid to the poor in America from private, personal, accountable, effective and tethered to spiritual transformation, to the poverty-sustaining government and statist-driven models that began in the early 20th century but really came into force in the 60s. Helpful and inspiring read.
Jul 23, 2013 rated it did not like it
This book has no data to support his claims, rendering it into a very long opinion piece, lifestyle preference over policy suggestions. Yet it's treated as the latter. The first few chapters are unreadable, just anecdotes and quotes from the turn of the century. When he does introduce data in the later chapters he misrepresents it. For example he writes that, "children almost always are poor because they do not have fathers living with and supporting them." I checked his citation, which stated t ...more
Mar 11, 2016 rated it really liked it
Shelves: politics
The author takes you on a trip throughout the history of charity/welfare worldwide.

He provides specific examples of private charity in the 18th and 19th centuries in the US. This changed rather dramatically in the 1930s during the Great Depression. The argument, led by social workers, was that private charity was insufficient and crowding out government's "mandate" to provide for the needy. This set the stage for many government programs. This was expanded again in the 1960s during the civil ri
Beth Haynes
May 03, 2014 rated it it was ok
Shelves: economics
May 2014 Not sure if I will finish this book. It's a bit repetitive.
Does offer an important perspective that good intentions aren't enough.
Catalogs a number of the private efforts to address poverty prior to the Progressive Era of Big Government. These efforts were much more effective: small. local groups which insisted on constructive, real, personal interactions which were more meaningful for both recipient and volunteer; holding recipients accountable for action and often sig. change -- but
J. Dale
Nov 04, 2015 rated it it was amazing
This book is almost a quarter of a century old - and more relevant today that when it was written. The US has become so "compassionate" as a nation that our government-enforced "kindness" has destroyed those truly in need by making them helpless and dependent, and encouraged those who are lazy and dishonest to work "the system" for every penny they can get. Further, corrupt politicians have multiplied the ways they can now "buy" the votes of these people, or continue to receive the huge "campaig ...more
Aug 30, 2007 rated it liked it
Olasky paints a pretty grim history of the evolution of social welfare in America. I found it to be well researched, but unquestionably bias in its presentation of "facts". Some the programs he deems as successes (e.g., Charles Brace's Orphan Trains) are widely regarded as ultimately harmful policy. His arguments dovetail to advocate for social libertarianism - that the "protestant work ethic" has been obliterated by years of government "handouts". While I find myself in opposition to his views, ...more
Paul Peterson
Mar 10, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Extremely valid and noteworthy, even 25 years after it's publishing. The basic ideas are that government handouts, rather than solving a problem, actually create more of that problem by taking away personal responsibility, and that churches are a far better answer to social problems than government bureaucracies as they offer hands-on help whereby providers can evaluate the type of help needed rather than just offer a blanket, one size fits all approach.

Those of us who've seen big government an
Kirsten Kinnell
Jul 11, 2007 rated it did not like it
yeah, it's such a tragedy... americans are so compassionate that we deserve the world's sympathy... whatever.

the guy's point is that the american government is too blunt a tool to address poverty... great-- well observed. but that doesn't mean it's compassionate for the government to STOP mitigating the effects of poverty for its people-- it just means that we (the people) should step up until the government doesn't need to anymore.
Skylar Burris
Jan 01, 2008 rated it liked it
Shelves: sociology, politics
This book had many salient points, but it was slow plodding. People so rarely realize that "conservatives" and "liberals" have the same desire: to see people prosper; we just disagree on how that is best achieved. This book shows how well-meaning compassion, when expressed through state welfare and preferences, can hurt the poor in the long run.
Bryn Dunham
Dec 11, 2010 rated it it was amazing
A great book about the history of state welfare and organized charity and it's documented effectiveness at relieving poverty (or lack thereof). A really interesting book that traces the effects of indescriminate charity and how it affects the recipiants. The author demonstrates that welfare and indescriminate charity do more harm than good. A real amazing book!
Jan 24, 2016 rated it liked it
Interesting look at welfare and "compassion" in the United States. I don't know if I agree with everything written in the book, but it is well researched and certainly makes one re-think their stance on welfare.
Stuart Spitalnic
Oct 20, 2013 rated it it was ok
Dull, repetitive, and no secrets. Agree with ideas that the nation's charity cases were better off before government made an industry out of welfare. Unearned benefits and entitlements breed senses of entitlement and are self perpetuating and magnifying.
Jan 29, 2011 rated it really liked it
I expected a book providing evidence of how private charity is superior to public charity. But "The Tragedy of American Compassion" goes even further, showing how even private charity frequently fails when it is impersonal and requires nothing on the part of able recipients.
Dec 11, 2008 rated it really liked it
Read this when I was considering going into public administration
Jan 26, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A thought provoking and challenging look at government charities. There should not be a one size fits all approach to helping those in need. Smaller, personal and relational approaches are better.
May 29, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Essential history of American anti-poverty programs, their original religious inspiration and their present-day socialistic corruption.
May 07, 2016 rated it liked it
Liked it but it was repetitive. Great for academic study but certainly not a light read. If you want to learn more about the history of the U.S. Welfare system it's worth reading.
Bryan Fordham
Sep 10, 2012 rated it liked it
Good information for the most part. Far too simplistic in the diagnosis for my taste. Worth reading because of its influence, of nothing else.
Sep 04, 2008 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Dustin by: Dr. Tom Hauff
A very detailed historical insight into the highs and lows of American compassion for the poor and needy.
Andy Crooks
Jul 11, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: politics
A must read for those of us on the conservative bent.
Jeromy Peacock
5 stars = Yearly re-read
4 stars = Re-read eventually
3 stars = Very Good
2 stars = OK
1 stars = Pass on this one.
0 stars = Couldn't finish it.
Jul 19, 2008 rated it really liked it
I'm putting this book aside for now. I will pick it up again in the Spring during this component in school.
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