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Giving that worked

"Giving that worked" Continued...

Issue: "Wealth and poverty," March 14, 2009

Riis wrote of how one charity group over eight years raised "4,500 families out of the rut of pauperism into proud, if modest, independence, without alms." He noted that another "handful of noble women . . . accomplished what no machinery of government availed to do. Sixty thousand children have been rescued by them from the streets." He compared such success with material distribution to the able-bodied that led to "degrading and pauperizing" rather than "self-respect and self-dependence."

With the understanding that anti-poverty progress was incremental and tied to economic growth, Riis pointed to problems but declared, "The thousand and one charities that in one way or another reach the homes and the lives of the poor with sweetening touch, are proof that if much is yet to be done . . . hearts and hands will be found to do it in ever-increasing measure."

Riis and his contemporaries were not arguing that the war on poverty a century ago was won, or was even winnable in any final sense: Riis wrote that "the metropolis is to lots of people like a lighted candle to the moth." Those who climbed out of urban destitution were replaced quickly by others awaiting trial by fire. But dreams then were alive: The poverty-fighting optimism among Americans then contrasts sharply with the demoralization among the poor and the cynicism among the better-off that are so common now.

Edward T. Devine perhaps put it best in an article in an issue of The Charities Review published in that turning-point year, 1900. The goal, he insisted, was not "that poor families should suffer, but that charity should accomplish its purpose." Thoughtless generosity was akin to selfishness if it made charity misfire. Generosity plus discernment was key.

(Note: This article has been corrected to reflect that the parable quoted is from Matthew 25.)

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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