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Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky
The Tragedy of American Compassion
ISBN: 089526725X
The Tragedy of American Compassion
Marvin Olasky discussed his book, "The Tragedy of American Compassion," published by Regnery Publishing of Washington, D.C. The book describes how Americans successfully fought poverty before the government became involved in the 1930s and then further involved in the 1960s. He argues that while the system is generous with money, it needs to incorporate personal involvement for a more effective program.
The Tragedy of American Compassion
Program Air Date: January 22, 1995

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: On January the 4th, Speaker Newt Gingrich, in his maiden speech to the House of Representatives, said the following: "I commend to all Marvin Olasky's 'The Tragedy of American Compassion' Olasky goes back for 300 years and looked at what has worked in America, how we have helped people rise beyond poverty and how we have reached out to save people. He may not have the answers, but he has the right sense of where we have to go as Americans." Were you surprised when the Speaker mentioned your book?
MARVIN OLASKY (Author, "The Tragedy of American Compassion"): Well, I know that people had been talking to him about it and showing it to him. I wasn't surprised that he had read it. I was surprised that he mentioned it in those circumstances. I was just walking through the kitchen and there it was. Very astonishing, and my life, as a result, has taken some sharp turns over the past few weeks.
LAMB: Where was the kitchen?
OLASKY: Where's the kitchen? We have a den in our house and the television's at the end of the den, and then there are several steps that go up from there to the kitchen. I was just ...
LAMB: What city?
OLASKY: Austin, Texas.
LAMB: And what do you do in Austin?
OLASKY: I teach at the University of Texas.
LAMB: How has your life changed?
OLASKY: Well, I'm on leave now this term, commuting back and forth, Austin to Washington, working with the Progress in Freedom Foundation on trying to develop these concepts of welfare reform further. My work up to now has been in the past, and now the question is: how relevant is this stuff to the present? Are there programs that are being done right now that are effective using the same principles that worked in the past?
LAMB: And you had no idea that the Speaker was going to mention your book?
OLASKY: No, not in that speech.
LAMB: Have you ever talked to him about this book?
OLASKY: I first met him three days ago, on Tuesday evening, doing a television show, and we chatted a little bit -- and I saw him briefly last night again, and that's been the limit of my experience.
LAMB: What is this book?
OLASKY: What is this book? It's a history book. It's a book that describes how Americans successfully fought poverty before the government became involved big time in poverty-fighting during the 1930s and then further in the 1960s. It's pretty much an unknown history because the assumption, I think, of lots of historians has been that there really wasn't a whole lot in the way of poverty-fighting until government did become involved. And I spent a year during a previous leave from the University of Texas hanging in the Library of Congress, rummaging through the stacks, finding all these old reports and documents and memoirs and reporters" descriptions about these poverty programs in the 19th century that actually were a lot more effective than many of the programs we have today.
LAMB: Name one.
OLASKY: Name one. You can go section by section. For homeless guys, they had lots of shelters back then, but they were shelters that actually treated folks as human beings -- not just as animals to whom you would throw a scrap of food, but as human beings capable of not only taking but giving. So when a guy came to a homeless shelter, yes, they would give him lodging and food, but they would hand him an ax and say, "Here's a woodpile next to our shelter. Why don't you chop some wood." And he could chop some wood for an hour, and in doing that, he would be providing for himself; he would also be providing for others who weren't able-bodied. I mean, the ax was given to people who were capable of doing it; there were other people who were physically incapable. And what they were doing was telling the guy, "Hey, you are not just a taker. You also, despite what appears to be your lowly condition in life right now, can also give. You can help someone else. And the reason you can help someone else is because you're created in the image of God. You're not just an animal, you're not just someone to think of in material terms. You have a spiritual sense, and we're going to honor that and we're going to treat you as a human being, and that means helping others as well as being helped."
LAMB: Is that not done anywhere in the United States?
OLASKY: Today, very rarely. At least from my brief experience and looking at homeless programs now, and from what I've heard from others, for the most part, homeless people are just there to take. I spent most of the year in Washington on leave on this book in the Library of Congress, but I did spend a couple of days on the streets just dressed as a homeless person, and went around to about a dozen places during that time and I was offered lots of things. I mean, there was food, there was shelter, there was medicine, clothing, but I was never actually asked to do anything. Even eating a meal, you go to McDonald's and you're supposed to -- or at least this is the custom -- to bus your own tray and take that away. Not there. There were nice young ladies bringing food to me and coming back and asking me if I wanted seconds, and then the custom is you just walk away, not asked to do anything at all.
LAMB: I want to ask you more about that in a moment. When I first heard about this book, I tried to find it and I went to the traditional bookstores and there were no copies available, but they helped me find it in a Christian bookstore out in the suburbs here in Washington.
OLASKY: Right.
LAMB: Why?
OLASKY: Well, the book was published in 1992 by Regnery Gateway with an agreement with an evangelical publishing company that I've worked with before, Crossway, to publish books, particularly for evangelical bookstores. So Crossway, in a sense, was doing it there. Regnery Gateway was doing it in the mainstream bookstores. And Regnery Gateway is just about out of books; Crossway still has a few in various places. This is very unusual for me. I've written a bunch of books that have usually gotten fairly decent reviews, none of them has sold a whole lot, so here I have a book that there seems to be some interest in and it's very hard to get.
LAMB: So if someone sees you tonight and they're listening to this and they go to their bookstore, it won't be there?
OLASKY: It won't be in the bookstore right now, but there's a new paperback edition that will be out in about a week. And Regnery is getting that into bookstores all over the place. So people can, should they wish to, can go tonight or tomorrow and place an order, or in about a week or two, depending on how quickly the books get out, they should actually be in the stores.
LAMB: Let me just tell you a little more about what I learned when I went to this -- I think it was called the Good News Bookstore in Herndon, Virginia.
OLASKY: Herndon -- alright.
LAMB: And I asked the gentleman how many copies he had. He said, "I have 12."
OLASKY: Oh. Alright.
LAMB: They were on -- you know, it was not a large place, but I went over on the shelf and I got a copy, and I said, "Why do you have this book here?" And he said -- well, I think he said, now you can correct me if I'm wrong -- "I met the man who wrote this at a Chuck Colson fellowship evening," or something like that near that place. Now were you ...
LAMB: In the last year or so, were you -- is that right or would he have just seen it at a book fair that Chuck Colson's group would have put on?
OLASKY: Let's see. I was at Chuck's place, Prison Fellowship, in May of last year, and that was a gathering, and I talked a little bit and talked with some people, and I've been over there a couple other times.
LAMB: And why Chuck Colson? And he endorses your book.
OLASKY: Oh, Colson is an example of a person who understands the accurate, historical, literal meaning of compassion. It means, "com" -- "with"; "pati" -- "to suffer"; "suffering with personal involvement." Colson himself, of course, during the Nixon years was high up in that administration, and then he went to jail and learned about prison to that point and has gone back. He hasn't just been preaching about it from afar. He's actually gone into prisons. He's worked personally with individuals. So that's what compassion is all about, and Chuck's done very well in that Prison Fellowship, and we've talked at times over the years.
LAMB: When did you really get personally interested in this issue of the poor and, you know, orphanages are discussed in here, lots of other things.
OLASKY: Oh, mid-80s, and then I -- '87, '88.
LAMB: Where were you?
OLASKY: Well, at the University of Texas teaching, but I was also reading the Bible and -- I'm a Christian, and one of the things that's clear from the Bible is that we do have a responsibility to widows and orphans and helpless aliens and others. So I was reading that and then trying to apply it -- not just reading it and thinking, "This is a nice story," or, "These are nice sentiments," but, "How exactly do you make this real in the world today with all the particular complications and nuances that we have?" And I started thinking about it, reading through the Bible to see how we were supposed to act and then became curious about how this all worked out in American history because I've written some other history books and I know that the churches were very strong -- people read the Bible in the 19th century. And so it seemed strange to me that if people were reading the Bible as I was reading the Bible -- people reading it then and thinking about what to do -- that they wouldn't do anything. But yet, if you look at conventional histories of poverty and poverty-fighting in America, that stuff is pretty much ignored.

So I just started thinking that there must be something there, and then I had an opportunity to apply for a fellowship offered by the Heritage Foundation to come and spend a year researching and writing a book and -- this was in '89 -- and applied to do it on that topic, just on the sense that I suspect there's something there. And then I started digging into the Library of Congress and found that, indeed, sometimes literally, with dust covering the pages, there was lots of stuff there.
LAMB: Now the book was, you say, first published in 1992. What was the reaction when it first came out?
OLASKY: There were some reviews that were favorable and said that we should pay attention to this. There were other reviews that said, "Well, this is a nice story, but it's romantic to even think that the type of stuff that -- if it did work back then, to think that that could be applied now. This is a nice notion, but has no real practical application." And there was some conversation about it and talk about it, and it sold a few copies and then it, you know, I think pretty much died. I'm not used to, again, having books in broad demand. My wife and I wrote a book that came out in 1990, and a couple weeks ago we got our royalty check for about six months of it, and the royalty check totaled 57 cents. So this is surprising to me that there was a lot of demand and interest in the book right now, but it seems to have been growing again since last summer. John Fund of The Wall Street Journal read it and wrote about it and liked it and talked about it with others. Bill Bennett read it and was talking about it. Some other people were, and then it got to the Speaker and he got excited about it and has been talking about it.
LAMB: Did you find out how the Speaker first learned about the book?
OLASKY: I've heard about three different stories -- people giving it to him, and I'm still not sure exactly which is which. I know Bill Bennett played a part in it. Other people also in different ways, I think. Heather Higgins, who works with Newt, was involved in that and other people, but I'm not exactly sure what the immediate process was.
LAMB: What are some of the other things that's happened since he just mentioned it in a speech?
OLASKY: Oh. Well, suddenly there was at least a little bit f a media feeding frenzy and people are interested in interviewing me and asking me what I think about this and that. And I try, for the most part, to talk about the history and tend to get pushed into talking about current public policy things of which I have some ideas but I'm not sure they're any better informed than the ideas of lots of other people. What I know about is the history, since I spent that time there, and I try to concentrate on that. But, you know, people want to know the current practical applications. That makes sense. But lots of media interviews, some television things, lots of political people interested in what this could mean and what kind of radical welfare reform we really should be talking about. So just a lot of discussion and interest in this topic. And now I'm spending a lot of time here in Washington talking with folks and we'll see what happens.
LAMB: You mention that you're a Christian, but you do in the book keep balancing the mention of Christianity with Judaism, the Judaic-Christian ethic. Why are the two mixed? And if I were a Buddhist or an Islamic follower or something like that, why aren't they included in a book like this?
OLASKY: Well, because the history, and what I tried to do was report on what I found in the stacks of the Library of Congress, and a lot of the groups were Protestants, some of the groups were Catholic, there were Jewish groups involved also -- United Hebrew Charities in New York. And one thing I found surprising, actually, was that they did pretty much the same thing. Even though there are significant theological differences, when it came down to the practical applications, they all thought of people created in the image of God, they all emphasized basic approaches of affiliation, thinking of people in terms of families and bonding, trying to actually set up a one-to-one relationship between a person who needs help and a volunteer capable of helping.

They weren't afraid to categorize people by values and seeing whether a person really wanted to work or did not want to work or was really interested in helping his family or was just interested in roaming around. They tried to be discerning in their giving. They all understood that the key thing was not just to give and have a warm, fuzzy feeling, but to give in a way that was effective. So regardless of the particular orientation, that's what they shared. I mean, they share an emphasis on employment, on having people find work. They share an emphasis on freedom, on trying to avoid certain restrictions that would take away the bottom rungs of the ladder and keep people from rising up. They all had a belief in a God who's sovereign.

Again, the different understandings of God, but nevertheless, there was the commonality, and when it came out in terms of people was that people have value, are not just material, people have spiritual sides. So that Protestantism and Catholicism and Judaism all had in common for the most part. Now today, you have big Buddhist and Islamic influences, but those were not there in the late 19th century, which I was concentrating on, and so I didn't discuss those.
LAMB: What about this cover? Do you know where this drawing came from?
OLASKY: Boy, the people at Regnery told me at the time and I just can't remember right now, but I like it.
LAMB: So it was their decision.
OLASKY: It was their decision.
LAMB: Now, in the publishing world, what's the difference in the way a book is treated when it's published by Regnery Gateway, which, I guess, is a secular publisher, and a Christian book company that distributed called -- is it Crossways?
OLASKY: Crossway. Yeah. I suspect the Christian publishing companies are Rodney Dangerfields in the publishing business. I mean, they don't get a whole lot of respect. They probably don't get widely reviewed in the most influential publications. And some of them don't deserve to be widely reviewed, but some do. Nut they're not, in a sense, taken seriously. I mean, one thing -- and you, I suspect, know a lot about this and I don't. I'm just curious as to best-seller lists and whether those include sales in Christian bookstores. I mean, there are these Christian bookstores all over the place, sometimes selling big-volume books, and I wonder how much the lists reflect that. There's a broad difference between those evangelical publishing houses and the secular ones and the type of treatment they get.
LAMB: Go back to -- I think you only mention it once in the book -- that you put on some old clothes and headed out to the streets. What year did you do that?
OLASKY: Well, that was in March of 1990.
LAMB: Did you go by yourself?
OLASKY: No, I went with a fellow who's a professor -- has been a professor at the Middle Tennessee State University named Dan McMurray. Dan actually has done this in a whole lot of cities. His particular specialty was urban sociology, and so he's gone and done that, and he explained to me some of the tricks of the trade; just things like, you know, put some tape on my glasses and just wear a stocking cap, and he showed me the particular type of homeless shuffle to use and so forth.
LAMB: How old were you?
OLASKY: How old was I? Then I was hitting up to 40.
LAMB: How old are you now?
OLASKY: Forty-four.
LAMB: And where did you go?
OLASKY: In Washington, not very far from where we're sitting, started out at CCNV, Center for Creative Non-Violence, which ...
LAMB: Two blocks from here.
OLASKY: Two blocks from here -- had the reputation as the largest homeless shelter in the world, 1,300 beds in there, or so they claimed. And then I just went by word of mouth. Homeless people are not reading instructions for the most part. You ask a person, "Hey, where can I get lunch?" And people would say, "Well, go up here." And I'd go over there and then I'd go to other places, depending on whatever instructions I got.
LAMB: And what did you find over here at this shelter?
LAMB: It's the Community for Creative Non-Violence?
OLASKY: Oh, I found it interesting that they didn't ask any questions. I decided just out of, you know, a certain sense of humor just to identify myself as M., and so if they have records there, they should have a record of Mr. M. They ...
LAMB: They didn't sign in?
OLASKY: Yeah -- you don't have to sign in. They just -- they just ask, "What's your name?" And I said, "M." And they didn't ask about that. They didn't ask about -- you see, back 100 years ago, they would immediately ask about, "Well, where are you from?" I mean, family and work background, insurance and stuff like that. I mean, they didn't ask about that. They just were quite ready to pass out medicine and so forth, whatever I needed.
LAMB: What did you do there?
OLASKY: What did I do there? I was curious -- I went into their health clinic and -- because occasionally from spending too many straight hours at the computer I have some back problems, and so I told them my back hurt, which indeed it did, and they immediately gave me some pills, which are actually fairly expensive pills which I've taken at other times for back pain. Oh, and the doctor recommended that I do some swimming and he said, "There's a swimming pool." and I actually went and looked at it later on. It's about Sixth Street southeast or something like that -- "You can go and here's where you can go swimming." And I said, "Well, I don't have a bathing suit." And they said, "Oh, well, come at this time. We'll give you a bathing suit." So a lot of stuff to give right there.
LAMB: Did you spend the night?
OLASKY: What? No, I didn't spend the night there. Went on to other places and went to lunch up at -- oh, I have this all written down somewhere, but went to lunch at a food place and got some lunch there and then went to other places and just kept roaming around with Dan.
LAMB: At any point did they have any restrictions on how often you could come there?
OLASKY: No, they didn't.
LAMB: Could you go there every night? Could you stay there all day, by the way?
OLASKY: Oh, yeah. There were lots of people who were just sort of sitting around in the front. One thing I found interesting is that, with all the guys just -- you know, apparently able-bodied just sitting around, there was really a trash-strewn lot right next door and, you know, it seemed to me simple enough to tell people just at the start, "Well, let's clean up this yard." But none of that was done. See, CCNV has a reputation as just -- at that point, I went over to one of my favorite places in Washington yesterday, the Gospel Mission, which is just located a few blocks away, and they were telling me that not a whole lot really has changed. I mean, it had a reputation as just a place where anything goes: drugs, alcohol, guns, knives and so forth.
LAMB: Where do they get their money?
OLASKY: Where do they get their money? They -- at least at that point -- and I went back and asked about it. They didn't make any records public of where the money came from. They have -- they're in this big old government building which was given to them by the government in the early '80s. Where their contributions come from to do it, that I'm not quite sure, and they were not making it public, at least four years ago.
LAMB: And how often -- how many days did you go around in ...
OLASKY: Oh, this was just a couple of days. This is always a subject of great interest in the press and it was interesting to do, but it was just a real small part of my research. It was March and I wanted to -- been spending too much time in the library stacks, wanted to just get out and walk around a little bit with my friend Dan.
LAMB: What did you observe?
OLASKY: What I observed was that there was in the District here lots of material available, and with no questions asked and no follow-up. People were treated essentially as animals in a sense. I mean, kindly as animals. I mean, "Here's food and we'll pet you," and so forth, but not the sense of any human contact. What I got into after a while -- and this is not something I planned to, but it became funny -- as I went around to places, I asked them after they would give food or whatever else and whatever material needs -- I asked them, "Well, can I have a Bible?" And none of the places had Bibles.

And again, the Gospel Mission, if I'd gone over there -- I mean, they had that, but no one directed me there. The places I was directed to, no Bibles. I spent one morning eating in the basement of a liberal church here downtown and I figured, "Oh hey, they're going to have a Bible here to give me if I ask for it," and there was a nice young lady who kept offering me food and pretty good food for breakfast, and it seemed to be a place that was a real neighborhood-friendly place where you can go all the time, although no one knows your name.

There was a guy sitting across from me who had a beeper. I mean, he seemed to be a drug dealer and it was a good place to go for a good free breakfast and so forth. After about the fourth time when she came back and asked if I wanted anything, I said in my homeless mumble, mumbling even more than I usually do, "Can I have a Bible?" And she couldn't quite understand what I was saying, and so she asked, "Well, do you want a bag? Do you want a bagel?" She had both of those, but when I said, "No, I want a Bible," she said, "I'm sorry. We don't have any Bibles." So that was just an indication to me of what the priorities are at these places.

And again, 100 years ago, and still at some places like the Gospel Mission today, it's very different, that they would treat people as human beings. They would say, "OK. Yes, here's a Bible, and we'd like to get you involved in Bible studies, and we'd like to provide some sort of work for you to see if you're able to do that and willing to do that. And we have a whole bunch of anti-drug programs that are all, again, based on this idea that you are more than just a material creature to satisfy any immediate urges you have, but you have a purpose in life because you're created by a -- by a holy and loving God."
LAMB: Let me ask you a general question. Could anybody in this country find food and shelter seven days a week, 52 weeks a year for nothing?
OLASKY: I would think so. Again, my pal, Dan, has done this a lot. In Austin, Texas, I know there are places where you can do that. I suspect in any large city. Now a lot of big-city shelters are dangerous places with all sorts of very war-like things going on within them, so I'm not at all saying that this is an easy life. But for someone who doesn't want to take on any responsibility, yes, from what I've seen, it's quite possible to just go on and on and on that way.

And then you get into questions: is that really helping? These are the questions people asked a century ago. They're good questions to ask today. Am I helping? Am I helping a person to get out of the situation or am I just an enabler? Am I just working to sustain this person in the situation? See, a lot of the folks -- and there have been estimates -- you hear different estimates of probably 65 percent or so is the average. A lot of homeless guys, I mean, are alcohol or drug addicts, and the thing about an addict is that any spare money you have you're going to use to feed your addiction. So when you're providing free housing for folks, I mean, that's great. That's an advantage and you can just go and panhandle and feed your addiction or get money in whatever way you can, but you have the basic requisites of housing and food and so forth all provided for you. It's not a helpful situation.
LAMB: A name that comes up often in your book is Cotton Mather.
OLASKY: Uh-huh.
LAMB: Who was he?
OLASKY: Oh, Cotton Mather was a Puritan minister who's gotten real bad press historically, but he was actually involved both in his own life and in his preaching with compassion. I mean, he took young women who were in trouble with their families for a whole lot of reasons into his own home. He preached about the need to help others, the need to apply the Bible. So, you know, there were things about him that I don't particularly care for. He was an extraordinarily lugubrious writer, real snoozers of books that he wrote, but still a decent guy.
LAMB: And when did he live?
OLASKY: Late 1600s, early 1700s.
LAMB: You start off this book with a story. The current impasse is in the introduction, and you talk about being at Christmas in Washington -- the social pendulum swings.
LAMB: Do you want to tell the story or do you want me to read it?
OLASKY: Oh, go ahead.
LAMB: Well, you say here that, "Panhandlers wait near the escalator heading down to the Metro stop." Now that's a block from here over in Union Station. "Some seem coolly efficient in their work. Some are inebriated and occasionally aggressive. Others are pathetic and one with a sly sense of humor sings, 'Rich folks roasting on an open fire, homeless stepping on their toes.'" Why did that get your attention?
OLASKY: Oh, I thought it was pretty clever. There's a lot of intelligence among some homeless guys who are drug addicted. I've met -- in shelters I've met folks -- one fellow used to work at The Washington Post. I mean, for real. I mean, he showed me his clips and I checked into this and he was a good writer when he was not doing crack. So, we often have the view that these guys are all stumblebums and pretty low on the Bell Curve and some are, but some aren't. There's a whole lot of personal reasons why people get into that situation, and as long as they are enabled to stay in it, some people will.
LAMB: You mentioned the "Bell Curve," which leads me to the preface of this, written by Charles Murray.
OLASKY: Right.
LAMB: Now this was written back in 1991 probably, published in 1992. Charles Murray has a different visibility at this moment.
OLASKY: Right.
LAMB: Does that help or hurt your book?
OLASKY: Oh, I don't know. It ...
LAMB: And why did you select him?
OLASKY: Oh, well, Charles has done some really excellent and searching analysis of why we have poverty. He raises lots of good questions. You know, I might disagree with him about some of his approaches, but here's a fellow who's willing to raise hard questions, to depart from the conventional wisdom, to stir things up intellectually, and I think that's useful. One of the things I find in universities is often there's not a whole lot of basic discussion because, for the most part, you have two political parties there among professors. You have liberals and you have radicals. There aren't a whole lot of conservatives around, and as a result, some basic issues sometimes just don't get discussed and people don't get critically questioned. That's not helpful. Charles Murray raises those critical questions.
LAMB: What department are you in at the University of Texas?
OLASKY: Department of journalism, and I teach journalism history for the most part, and I also edit a Christian weekly newsmagazine called World, so I have one leg in journalism and one leg in history, and I hope that the history I write is readable, and that may be the journalistic emphasis, and I hope that the journalism has a little bit of depth to it.
LAMB: If you say there are two types in universities, liberals and radicals, and you're a what?
OLASKY: Oh, theologically I'm a Christian, politically I'm a conservative.
LAMB: What was the reaction of your colleagues down at the university when the speaker mentioned your book?
OLASKY: Oh ...
LAMB: Do they know about it?
OLASKY: Oh, yeah, they know about it, and I think there is a sense of, "This is interesting." Most of them, I suspect, do not particularly care for the Speaker and his ideas, but as one of them put it, let's see -- and this was kind of in a grandiose way, and he meant it in a humorous way -- "The people have spoken. This is still a democracy." So I'm told that The Daily Texan, which is the student newspaper there, yesterday had an article about me that was a nice article, and I guess people seem to feel that it's good for the University of Texas to get some favorable publicity since its football team was a little bit disappointing this year. I gave a talk here several days ago, and it was mentioned that I was from the University of Texas, and a couple people in the audience were raising their fingers like this, which is the "Hook 'em, Horns" sign in Texas. So that's fun.
LAMB: Where were you born?
OLASKY: Malden, Massachusetts.
LAMB: You say your parents are immigrants?
OLASKY: Grandparents.
LAMB: Or grandparents.
OLASKY: Grandparents were all immigrants from the Russian Empire. My grandfather on my father's side had the good intelligence and wisdom to be a deserter from the Russian army just before World War I.
LAMB: Was your grandfather's name Olasky?
OLASKY: His name was -- as I understand it, he was called Olyevsky, which means the man from Olyevsk, which was a little village just in the northern part of the Ukraine right near Russia. And when he came and moved to Boston and his name became Olasky, kind of like the Irish of Boston, but without the apostrophe.
LAMB: And when did he come?
OLASKY: Oh, about 1912, something like that, as far as I ...
LAMB: What do your parents do?
OLASKY: My father's dead, and my mother is retired and living in Florida right now.
LAMB: And when you were growing up, was it in Malden, Massachusetts?
OLASKY: Right.
LAMB: What kind of an atmosphere was it? I mean, did you get into history in the early days, or journalism?
OLASKY: Well, when I was a teenager, my perfect Saturday -- this was when I was 14, 15, 16 -- was to take the subway over into Boston and get off at the stop where the Boston Public Library was in the morning and I would spend Saturday morning in the library very often cranking microfilm, reading old newspapers. I just got interested in things that were going on in 1900, 1910 or something like that, and I would just crank old Boston Globes. I may have been particularly driven to it by my disappointment in the Boston Red Sox. I used to read back in 1912 and 1915 and '16 and '18, the years they won the World Series, and I enjoyed reading that. And then I would go over -- I mean, I would eat lunch and go over to Fenway Park, which is located not far from the public library, and watch the Red Sox play Saturday afternoon. So it was this combination of history and journalism and baseball that made my joy complete at that time.
LAMB: What religion were you raised in?
OLASKY: Judaism.
LAMB: And you became a Christian.
OLASKY: Right.
LAMB: When?
OLASKY: Officially, 1976. I had become an atheist, and in 1973 I came to believe in God and did not really want to be a Christian, but as I started, for a whole bunch of different reasons, reading -- well, my graduate school -- you had to have a good reading knowledge of a foreign language, and my language was Russian. And one day in my room, I just picked up the only volume in Russian that happened to be there that I hadn't read just for reading practice, and it was a little New Testament in Russian that had been given to me a couple of years before and I just held onto it. I hadn't looked at it, but I just held onto it because I never threw away books in those days. I mean, I just tried to hoard them.

And there it was on my shelves, and started reading it, and I think I had read the New Testament before just to see -- I had gone through it or skimmed it just to see what these Christians believed and so forth but this time, reading it very slowly, because my reading knowledge of Russian was lousy, and so I had to sort of go word by word and think about what the words meant. It just made enormous sense to me and just started reading and kept reading. And, you know, logically that should have led me to become a Christian right away, but again, I didn't want to.

I mean, in Judaism, even among non-observant Jews -- I mean, to become a Christian -- even though it's happening a lot these days -- but still to become a Christian is a wild and crazy thing. Even among non-observant Jews -- even when it's a social relationship and cultural rather than theological, it's almost like leaving the Mickey Mouse Club to join the Donald Duck Club. And, you know, why should anyone do that? Why wasn't the Mickey Mouse Club good enough for you? So things like that. I did not want to become a Christian, but that had an influence. At one point I was teaching -- I had to teach a course in early American literature -- this was while I was still a teaching assistant and then preparing to teach ...
LAMB: By the way, where'd you go to college and get your ...
OLASKY: College, Yale; graduate school, University of Michigan.
LAMB: And you got a master's or a Ph.D.?
LAMB: Both?
OLASKY: Both from University of Michigan.
LAMB: In what area?
OLASKY: American studies.
LAMB: OK. I'm sorry. Go ahead.
OLASKY: No -- where were we? Oh, early American literature. What's early American literature? It's Puritan sermons. I mean, that's where I first became cognizant of Cotton Mather and all these -- you know, all these dead white males from 300 years ago were actually speaking to me. So that was strange and curious and something that was still there, but still, I didn't want to become a Christian. It wasn't until 1976 that I finally joined up. I'd moved with my new wife -- we'd just gotten married -- to San Diego and I was teaching for a year at San Diego State University. And she's from a United Methodist background, which is very theologically liberal, and she had as far to come to become actually a Bible-believing Christian as I did -- I mean, from a different direction, but there was a long distance there.

And we decided, "OK. Let's go to a church," and we didn't know anyone. We didn't know anyone who went to theologically conservative churches. We opened up the Yellow Pages and saw, "Hey, this is a" -- we saw a listing for a conservative Baptist church, and we figured, "OK. We're not liberals anymore, so conservative -- that sounds good, and Baptist -- well, isn't that what Christians do?" I mean, so that's where we went. And it actually was a real good church for us because week in, week out, it was one of the sort of fundamentalist churches where the minister just kept preaching essentially the same sermon week in, week out -- you must born again and so forth. And although you get tired of that after a while, it worked there for us.

And finally there was a -- I haven't met him -- I haven't seen him since then, but there was a deacon of that church named Earl Atnip, and Earl Atnip was not an educated guy. I don't even know if he finished high school, but he just came over to our apartment one afternoon and said, "Well, you believe this stuff, don't you?" And I said, "Well, yeah. I do." And he said, "Well, then you'd better join up." And so I did -- baptized and joined the church. That was in '76, and since then, I've been, you know, out there as a Christian.
LAMB: Chapter 6, The Seven Marks of Compassion. Where does that come from?
OLASKY: What I tried to figure out was were there any general principles that people used then in fighting poverty, and I came up with seven and for easy memory purposes, A, B, C, D, E, F, G.
LAMB: So you've developed these.
OLASKY: Yeah, it's my terminology, yeah, but it's based on the writings that people like Humphreys Gurteen and Mary Richmond and some of the other people -- Charles Brace and others were writing -- it's my attempt to synthesize their thought and put it in some easy-to-remember way.
LAMB: I've got them written down. I want to list them and give you just a brief explanation on what they are or we could get bogged down in this for the rest of the show. The seven are affiliation -- what's that?
OLASKY: You look at where a person comes from. You look at family connections, work connections, church connections. You don't look at a person just as an isolated atom floating around. You try to hook a person back into a community in some way because they saw people as best integrated into a community nexus rather than just treating them as big government, an individual, and let's just have a direct connection there. They wanted to put people -- think of people in terms of neighborhoods and communities.
LAMB: Who did?
OLASKY: The people who ran missions, charity organization societies, church groups. There was just a huge array. I mean, this is one of the things that surprised me, just how vast the numbers of little organizations.
LAMB: How long ago?
OLASKY: How long ago? They were at their height in the late 19th century, but you see it coming a century before that.
LAMB: 1890s?
OLASKY: 1890s is probably the peak period.
LAMB: Bonding.
OLASKY: Bonding? If you don't have that affiliation -- let's say there's a person and he doesn't have any family, he's broken all ties. You want to create a tie at that point. You want to have a volunteer working one on one with that person. I feel real sorry for social workers these days because a lot of people go into that profession with a great desire to help and they find that they are paper shufflers, that's it. They have caseloads of 100 to 200 or 100 to 300. Back then they thought that was nonsense. You couldn't do anything in a personal way. Their ratios using volunteers was 1:1 or 2:1 or 1:2, but very low like that.
LAMB: Categorization.
OLASKY: Yeah -- today we have essentially a one-size-fits-all welfare system. If you're in a particular material situation, then you're entitled to get this benefit and this benefit and this benefit and that benefit. They didn't think in those terms then. They thought in terms of values and individuals and different lifestyles the people had and they weren't afraid to categorize people as: here are people who will use resources well, here are people who won't; some people need a pat on the back, other people need a push.
LAMB: Discernment?
OLASKY: Discernment. Today we tend to think that the important thing is to give. It doesn't matter how you give, but giving is the important thing. It's, in a sense, a giver-ocentric view of the world almost, that whatever warm, fuzzy feeling you get from it, that's the central thing. They didn't think in those terms. They wanted to be effective, so they emphasized discernment in the part of volunteers. Don't just give; give wisely, give in a way that will help and not hurt.
LAMB: Employment.
OLASKY: Employment. Well, work was real important. This started from the homeless shelters and the woodpiles next door. But other people came and they thought this is something that people are capable of doing. And a lot of people may have gotten out of the habit of working, they may be drifting around, but it's real important to get people back into that habit as soon as possible.
LAMB: And freedom.
OLASKY: Well, this is what I was mentioning before in terms of the lower rungs of the ladder. I mean, today we're often very worried about someone on the bottom rung of the ladder. I mean, how low is that rung? And as a result, we tend to chop off those bottom rungs. Well, that leaves people sometimes without those entry-level jobs and without that opportunity to actually go and serve. My grandfather on my mother's side of the family in the Boston area, after he came to America, went around with a horse and a wagon and picked up used mattresses and then restuffed them and so forth. I mean, I don't think he'd be able to do that today. I mean, he may have actually -- they didn't have tags on it, but today we have we have "Do not remove this tag under penalty of law." I mean, I don't know exactly how hygienic it all was, but it worked and he got mattresses that people could afford and he was able to work his way out of poverty.
LAMB: The seventh is God.
OLASKY: Yeah. This is crucial then and, from all I've seen now, the anti-poverty programs that work have a religious base. I mean, that's a grand generalization. I mean, certainly true historically, and my sense is -- and I'll be investigating this more over the next few months -- is that it's true now. Without it, people just don't change. Even today the programs I've seen that are effective are ones that have this theocentrism and work on people's self-image -- not by saying, "Hey, whatever you do, you're cool. We love you," but by saying, "You're pretty good because you are made in the image of a God who's wonderful and, therefore, you have merit also." I've seen this all over the place.

In San Jose, I visited there several years ago and I'm going to go back and check it out now, but there's a comparison between a group called City Team, which had a very effective anti-drug program. I mean, they had a success rate measured in terms of a person once finishing the program being off drugs or alcohol a year after the program concluded. They had a success rate about 75 percent, which is terrific, because most success rates for anti-drug, anti-alcohol programs are down in the single digits. The county people at that point went to the people at City Team and said, "We can see that your program works, and we would like to give you a few barrels full of bucks in order to expand your program. I mean, ours isn't working, yours is working. Why don't you expand and we just want people off drugs and we'll be happy to do this. There's only one condition: You have to give up having worship services for these folks." And the City Team people, to their credit, said, "Boy, we would love to expand. We just can't do it. This, our belief in God and sharing that belief with the people who come here, is the engine that drives our ship. You take away the engine, the ship won't go."
LAMB: You dedicate your book for Susan.
OLASKY: Right.
LAMB: Who's that?
OLASKY: Oh, that's my wife. And she is not only a wonderful wife in every single way, but she's also a good writer. She has a children's book about Patrick Henry's daughter Annie coming out very soon.
LAMB: You wrote a book with her? What's she do for a living?
OLASKY: Well, basically she's writing these children's novels now and she also does some writing on education for World magazine, this Christian news weekly that I edit, and she is very busy taking care of our four sons and also doing things in the community.
LAMB: How old are your sons?
OLASKY: Seventeen, 14, nine and four.
LAMB: World magazine is owned by what company?
OLASKY: It's a non-profit, God's World Inc. and it's based in Asheville, North Carolina, but we operate in cyberspace these days. I do some editing part-time from Austin. Our managing editor's in St. Louis. We have correspondents all over the country and we just send stuff around by modem and fax.
LAMB: This is a little bit off the subject, but in your book, as in so many books that we do on this program -- and we're going to deal with this on a future BOOKNOTES -- you quote -- not extensively but enough to get my attention -- Tocqueville.
OLASKY: Oh, yeah.
LAMB: Why?
OLASKY: Oh, he's always been one of my favorites, I mean, ever since in college. He was a wonderful journalistic observer, but he brought real historical depth to it. His predictions were uncannily accurate. He saw Americans as a religious people and he took that very seriously. I got into a de Tocqueville pattern and I spent five -- before coming to the University of Texas -- I spent five years at the Du Pont Company, most of the time writing speeches for executives of the company. And, you know, speechwriters after a while get bored and do little tricky things themselves, and so I got into a pattern of trying to have at least one de Tocqueville quote in every executive speech and ran up a certain streak. So I became familiar, looking through de Tocqueville, to try to connect him to chemical processes and scientific devices and so forth. Sometimes it was a real stretch.
LAMB: Is he a hero of the right or the left or both -- I don't even know if he's a hero, but if he ...
OLASKY: I don't know if he's a hero, but he's one of the people who should be mandatory reading for college students to get a sense of American history and culture and some of the particularly good things about America.
LAMB: Is he more apt to be quoted by a liberal or a conservative?
OLASKY: I suspect these days he's more apt to be quoted by a conservative, but I haven't done any study of that. That would be interesting.
LAMB: You tell a story in your book about a gentleman by the name of Ego Brown.
OLASKY: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Ego Brown here in Washington was a guy who had been homeless himself and wanted to do something to help homeless people. He set up essentially a shoe shine company and set up showers and got kind of uniforms and trained homeless guys to go out and shine shoes and hand had to fight and there was a conservative non-profit law firm that, with him, fought a legal battle to allow him to do that. And that's what I mean in a sense by freedom, that people should have freedom to go out and do things like shining shoes or other stuff that some people would consider demeaning.
LAMB: But you say that he hired a bunch of people, put them in tuxedos or he wore a tuxedo.
OLASKY: Yeah. I don't recall whether he did but, yeah, he had a certain showmanship.
LAMB: "He recruited 50 to 60 teen-agers and homeless people who desired to work. He provided each with training, a shower, a shoe shine kit and a stand. Brown explained, 'Not only was I pulling myself up by the bootstraps, I was helping others pulling themselves up by the bootstraps.'" But then you go on to say he made about, you know, $100 to $150 a day by putting all these folks out on the street. "But in the summer of 1985, the city closed down his operation because of a law prohibiting bootblacks from using public space, even though virtually every other type of vendor had access." How much of that kind of thing did you find in your study?
OLASKY: You mean today or historically?
LAMB: Either way. I mean, it's ...
OLASKY: Historically, that was very important. I mean, these were the types of unskilled jobs -- I mean, with a little bit of training then you had the skill shining shoes that people were able to use to get out of poverty, and those were always considered honorable things. One of the big changes in the '60s that I found out about just by reading material from then is that it had always been somewhat dishonorable to go on welfare unless you absolutely, absolutely had to. But in the '60s that changed and it was considered to be better to go on welfare than to do things like shining shoes or taking in laundry. Those were considered to be demeaning activities, shameful activities, but going on welfare was now an entitlement and thus entirely honorable.
LAMB: You write about the '60s and the '70s and the Great Society. What are your conclusions?
OLASKY: Well, there were a lot of very well-intentioned people involved in it, but the whole process has been disastrous, and I think there are three reasons why the war on poverty failed. It was a war on poverty, but it was also a war on shame. What really kept the welfare system, the star of the New Deal, from getting out of hand then was that there was as sense of shame involved in taking it unless you absolutely had to. People wanted to work, people wanted to be independent. People did not consider being independent to be dependent on government. That was all lost in the 1960s. There was a sense of entitlement and that, in fact, if you could get welfare and you didn't that you were a chump.

That was a shame and that really has hurt the whole process. There was a war on family because in the oldie days, as my kids call them, back before they were born. Prior to the 1960s, there was a sense that family was essential and that every child should grow up in a two-parent family. That all changed in the 1960s with the growth of feminism and the growth since then of a lot of children being born out of wedlock. I mean, now we have about a third of children in the country being born to an unmarried woman. And this is very tragic for those kids. I mean, the chief cause of poverty right now in the United States is not structural unemployment or anything like that. It's single-parent moms -- I mean, single-parent families with the moms in a very desperate situation of trying to both take care of kids and somehow make a living. That's very hard. But that's one of the results of the 1960s, the war on family.

And the third thing that happened in the 1960s, a war on God, that up until then, even when you had governmental programs, starting in the 1930s, they tried to do things pretty much in the classic sense from the late 19th century. I mean, they tried to have those same emphases on work and family and God and so forth, even though it was a government program. In the 1960s, that all changes. And by judicial fiat, essentially, God is excluded from governmental programs, and as a result, if the only money you can pour into programs is money into programs where God is excluded and if historically the programs that are the most successful are the ones in which God has a central place, then I think logically you are almost condemning yourself to failure. That's what's happened and that's why the war on poverty hasn't worked.
LAMB: By the way, you do write a lot about orphanages in history. Do you think the speaker got his idea on orphanages from your book?
OLASKY: No, I think he had that before, and what he said, and I think it's been somewhat distorted, is that orphanages are something to be considered, but I don't think he's ever emphasized those as the primary anti-poverty task, and that's what I write, essentially. Orphanages are things to have as a last gasp. I mean, the real problem today is that there are a lot of kids born to single moms and the single moms want to try to raise the kids and that's -- I mean, their intentions are very good, but it is such a hard task in that situation, it overwhelms a lot of them and they find out that when the child is two or three that they really can't handle it.

What typically happens then is that the child goes into foster care and sometimes gets shunted around from place to place and doesn't actually become available for adoption within the system until he's seven or eight, and by then, he's often become psychologically real messed up in this process, and a lot of folks who want to adopt infants or toddlers, children up to age two or three do not want to adopt a seven or eight year old who, at that point, has real psychological difficulties.

So, you know, there's where you get into orphanages, when you have a child who's seven or eight and is banged up and can't really be put into a family at that point because of the damage that's been done to him, then you can have orphanages and you can have professional folks trying to help that child turn around his life. But that's a last gasp. That's not something we should do. We really have to work to reform the adoption system so that kids at a very young age, when they are eminently adoptable, get into families where they can have both a father and a mother who love them and discipline them.
LAMB: Why did you write about George Wiley?
OLASKY: Oh, one of the tragedies, I think, and that's -- and that's why I call the whole book "The Tragedy of American Compassion." There are a lot of very well-intentioned people who got involved in this and then their dreams died or their dreams were killed. I mean, George Wiley got involved with the national Welfare Rights Organization. He wanted to help mothers on welfare. The whole thing just took some ugly political turns and then he died very frustrated. I've seen all these -- you see so many of these dreams die -- you know, social workers who go into this with great intentions wanting to help people and they just find out they're not doing anything that's useful. They're just enabling bad behavior. They're not helping people out of poverty. They're not even having a whole lot of professional dealing with people. They're just shuffling paper. That's so frustrating for them.
LAMB: Mitch Snyder -- I think that shelter's still named after, down the street ...
OLASKY: Right. Part of it at least, yeah.
LAMB: ... we talked about earlier. He died -- did he die -- do you know what that story is?
OLASKY: Oh, I don't know. He's evidently such a complicated guy and there may have been something with his relationship with Carol Fennelly. There may have been other problems going on. There may have been a lot of frustrations. Who knows? You know, there's a guy who was -- he was a showman. He was sometimes grandiose. He wildly exaggerated the number of homeless people. He did a lot of other wild and crazy things. But, you know, he's a guy who had good intentions, and I think a lot of the other people involved in this had good intentions also.
LAMB: What are your numbers about -- of homeless people from what your investigation's been?
OLASKY: Oh, I mean, I haven't done my own investigations of it. There have been lots of studies that put the number of homeless people, oh, I mean, somewhere under a million. You hear a figure sometimes of 600,000, 800,000, 300,000. I mean, that's still a lot of people. I'm not minimizing that at all. But it's not three million. That was one of the figures -- I mean, Mitch Snyder admitted that he just plucked that out of thin air.
LAMB: You told us earlier you teach at the University of Texas and right there on the campus is the Johnson Library and Museum and when you go in there, all these programs that you say have failed are heralded as the success of that administration. And you even write about a reunion of the Johnson administration officials after 25 years. Did you go to that?
OLASKY: No, I didn't go to that. I guess I am not -- I hate to say this, I mean, since I am of -- become somewhat of a Texan, I suppose, as much as a person can become moving there at age 33 and coming from Boston with a different sort of accent and not having done, you know, hunting and fishing as a youth or any of that stuff. But Lyndon Johnson is probably the worst president in American history. The programs he followed, both domestically and internationally, ended in disaster. The University of Texas campus, the older part of it -- it's a beautiful campus. It's wonderful to walk around there. The LBJ Library is architecturally somewhat of a monstrosity, looming over that whole section of the campus. And it's kind of a -- like pyramids, a monument to the pharaoh of the age, and it's not a healthy place.
LAMB: Let me ask you, though, what your opponents would say if they were here and answered this statement in your book: "Lyndon Johnson's economic advisers warned in 1964 that the poverty rate and the absence of federal action could be as high as 13 percent by 1980. After 16 years of multi-billion dollar programs, the poverty rate at the end of that year was 13 percent."
LAMB: Now what would the other side argue, though, at this point? What are you missing in this?
OLASKY: Oh, the other side might argue that the reason the programs failed is that we didn't spend enough money, that they should be even bigger. That would be one thing. Or -- I mean, other people might say that they did not entirely fail, that a lot more people would be in poverty if it weren't for those programs. But I've walked around, for an example, the Summerville area of Atlanta, which is near where the Atlanta Braves play or played and, perhaps, they will again someday -- and I've walked around with people in the community who point out to me various edifices of the Great Society and they always refer to those edifices as the enemy. This is -- I mean, these were things designed to help people, but they were these big structures. They didn't do anything to actually help people in terms of their own families or fixing up their own homes and so forth. I mean, there were these big projects that could be labeled "Great Society projects. We're here to help you," but it's been disastrous.
LAMB: By the way, when the paperback comes out soon in this -- and there still are hardbacks in some bookstores, I gather -- will it have the quote on the back that I read earlier, "I commend to all Marvin Olasky's 'The Tragedy of American Compassion'" by Speaker Newt Gingrich?
OLASKY: Either that quote or another like it that he said but, yes, that will be prominently displayed, they tell me.
LAMB: Do you think that'll sell books?
OLASKY: I would think so -- what we should have, of course, is cardboard cutouts, full size, of Newt Gingrich pointing his finger at people and saying, "You must read this book." But, no, I think that some people who like Newt will want to go and get it, and other people who don't will at least want to find out what he's talking about, I hope.
LAMB: This is what the book looks like, the cover of Marvin Olasky's book, "The Tragedy of American Compassion." And we thank you for joining us.
OLASKY: Alrighty.

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