A hundred and twenty five years ago it was the citizens who directly waged the war on poverty:
“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 widows, 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.”
The description comes from the book the Tragedy of Compassion (page 80), a book that walks through the history of Americans interaction with the poor and their gradual disconnect over the last 125 years. Today if you ask Americans who is responsible to take care of the poor most would point to the government. 125 years ago they would have said it was their job.
When President Lyndon Johnson declared the war on poverty in 1964 he said: “This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort.”
So the nation got busy and the Great Society Programs were formed. As the government stepped up to the war on poverty the citizens stepped back. Perhaps that was unintended but that is what happened. What is remembered today from the speech is the phrase “war on poverty.” What isn’t remembered is the phrase “all Americans to join me.” Did that mean to support the government plan with taxes and votes or did it mean to get personally involved and work with the poor?
It is an interesting question, but a more relevant question is this - is it possible for government to solve the poverty problem alone? I believe the answer is no. It is a simple analysis as to why and has been laid out in the website (See Poverty and Spending Over the Years and Welfare Issues). To solve poverty those that are in poverty need individualized help, mentoring and encouragement. Government has proved it is not good at that. To solve poverty citizens have to show they care about their fellow citizens by working with the poor and together being a part of the community. A far away government in Washington DC isn’t good at that. Government can have an important role, but citizens are the secret to success.
Whether intended or not, government has absolved citizens of responsibility for the poor. We still care, send money and pay taxes, but not enough of us are involved working one on one with those in poverty. Even the meaning of the word compassion has changed over time. 125 years ago the word compassion was used most often in its literal meaning[i] – “to suffer with”. Today our definition is, “sympathetic consciousness of others’ distress together with a desire to alleviate it.”
Today our main tools in the war on poverty are sympathy, desire and government. It is time we added back citizenry or we will not be successful.
[i] The Tragedy of American Compassion – Marvin Olasky. Crossway Books, 1992 and 2008. Page 197.