We worry about safety issues, legal liability, even stepping on a social workers toes. We don’t have charities that can align us with the poor. We really don’t know how to deliver hands on help. But that isn’t the way it used to be in America. Here is a description of American charity in the 1890’s from the book “The Tragedy of American Compassion”:
“Records in the Library of Congress show tens of thousands of points of light including two thousand in Baltimore, Chicago and New York alone during 1890….. In Baltimore, the Association for the Improvement of the Condition of the Poor had two thousand volunteers who made 8,227 visits in 1891 to 4,025 families. Nearly half of those families were headed by windows, and they generally received material aid; most of the others were headed by able-bodied men, who generally received help in fighting alcohol and opium addiction and securing jobs. The personal involvement of rich and poor, not just material transfer, was evident in many ways.”
What happened to America? Where did the mentors go? The simple answer is that as government programs took over the responsibility for the poor the private citizens stepped back and the mentoring stopped. But we now know that reliance solely on government programs doesn’t solve the poverty problem so why is mentoring still defunct? The answer lies in the views of those on the left and the right of the political spectrum. Neither group mentors the poor anymore but for very different reasons.
Those on the right are quick to blame government for the plight of the poor. They believe that government programs are ineffective, expensive and exacerbate the problem. But they allow the very programs they are critical of to shield them from the responsibility to care for the poor. They shake their head at what they see happening in the nation. They see a government isolating the poor from that attribute which is the single most important thing the poor need to change their plight – personal responsibility. They fight in Washington to change this attitude but they don’t fight one on one with the poor outside of government. How ironic. They have big hearts and are a very charitable people. They believe in the American dream and want all Americans to experience it. They feel stuck behind a government interfering with the delivery of that dream. So they sit on the sidelines and wait for government to get out of the way. They will be waiting a long time.
Meanwhile the left puts total confidence in government no matter the plan, performance, history or effectiveness. They believe poverty is a societal problem, not a personal one, and the next program will mitigate it. That was 13 programs ago and the argument is the same today (See welfare programs). But such an argument is convenient for them too isn’t it? It means they don’t have to get their hands dirty – it really isn’t any of their business. In fact such an intrusion into someone’s life is uncalled for and improper. Help means giving stuff away to make life livable and easier, not teaching a poor person life skills and certainly not challenging a poor person. They have big hearts and believe compassion is measured by how much is given away and government is the best way to accomplish that goal. They believe the individual will progress as society gets stronger, not the other way around. So they put their effort in protecting the government programs at all cost and expanding their scope and reach whenever possible. They see improvement or reform of programs as a threat to overall giving. They refuse to focus on the fact the U.S. pays double what it takes to end poverty (See U.S. Poverty Gap) yet the poverty rate is flat as a pancake in good economic times or bad. They just don’t believe in a roll for private citizens because what people can do, government can do even better, and anyway, government is the people. They don’t address the fact that government programs could be poorly designed or that independent government bureaucracies are incapable of singlehandedly fixing the problem. So they sit on the sideline and wait for central planning to save the day. They will be waiting a long time.
The left and the right are hands off the poor. It is for very different reasons but the result is the same – the poor are neglected by their fellow citizens. Where have all the mentors gone? Long time passing. When will they ever learn? Oh when will they ever learn?