Editor’s note: The following is a review of a new book by Howard Husock, Who Killed Civil Society? The Rise of Big Government and Decline of Bourgeois Norms (available now).
People need what the government doesn’t provide: help in developing the personal traits that will reduce dependency and foster success.
I was having lunch a few years ago with the director of New York City’s welfare agency, a respected social-policy expert with a long career in government and the nonprofit sector. She had just spent a difficult morning observing the workings of New York’s Family Court, which had jurisdiction over cases involving child abuse, foster care and spousal support, among other matters that were routinely found in her own agency’s enormous caseload. “If only ministers in New York preached more about the virtues of matrimony,” she said, “my job would be much easier.”
Howard Husock, a vice president at the Manhattan Institute, might well agree. In “Who Killed Civil Society?,” he indicts government policies for eroding the values that enable people to succeed in life—such as thrift, industriousness and self-discipline—and for undermining traditional practices, like marriage, that cultivate success in all sorts of ways. “Despite the massive scale and blanket coverage of the modern social service state,” he writes, “it fails to provide something essential . . . : the modeling of habits and values that lay the foundation for upward social mobility and life as a contributor to one’s community.”
A few social scientists and cultural critics—including Charles Murray, Myron Magnet and Brad Wilcox —have made broadly similar arguments, but Mr. Husock focuses here more narrowly on civil society: the charities and voluntary associations—from Kiwanis clubs to Boy Scout troops, from community food banks to the PTA—that were once a distinctive feature of American life. Before the New Deal, he contends, such groups not only allowed Americans to join one another in a range of service activities but also taught them how to become good citizens and good people in the individualistic culture of the United States, where the older ties of religion, nationality and social class were less binding.
But a surge in government assistance disrupted the logic of voluntary enterprise. Social-welfare programs grew exponentially during Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and then again during Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, and continued to expand into the current century. The effect has been to diminish civil society’s role as well as to reduce its moral leverage: Many groups that were once privately supported have become heavily dependent on public funding, requiring them to abide by government rules that give them little room for espousing “bourgeois norms.”
Mr. Husock develops his argument through short sketches of several important, if now largely forgotten, figures in American social history. New York “child-saver” Charles Loring Brace and Chicago settlement-house pioneer Jane Addams sought to connect the mostly immigrant poor they served with middle-class Americans and their values. Mr. Husock movingly describes how this approach rescued his own father from a troubled childhood. Mary Richmond (who helped shape social work as a profession) and Grace Abbott (a key federal official in the 1920s) directed their efforts toward social and economic conditions and the role that government could play in improving them. Wilbur Cohen —a researcher with the commission that devised Social Security, and eventually a cabinet secretary—worked to build a system that combined income support with an array of therapeutically oriented services.
In the evolution of social policy, these figures certainly played an influential part and deserve the attention Mr. Husock gives them. He might have enriched his survey by including landmark events as well—for example, the publication of the 1965 federal report titled “The Negro Family,” written by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, which sought to direct attention to declining marriage rates among African-Americans but was instead vilified for supposedly “blaming the victim.” And he mentions only briefly the welfare-reform legislation of 1996, which required public-assistance recipients to work or lose their benefits, a clear instance of trying to align bourgeois norms and government practice.
So what is to be done? Many people require the kinds of assistance that government provides today, Mr. Husock notes, and would be hurt if it were withdrawn. But, he also notes, many people need what government does not provide and perhaps cannot: help in developing the kinds of personal traits likely to reduce dependence on such assistance. He describes a few examples of civil-society programs that he feels are offering that kind of help, such as Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone, which combines high-expectations schooling with efforts to change youth culture. (Celebrity rappers may not visit.) Many more such examples from Mr. Husock would have been welcome. For nearly the past two decades, he has directed a Manhattan Institute program that gives awards to groups trying to foster middle-class values. (I have regularly served as a judge.) He doesn’t explain how those groups or others, such as the Nurse-Family Partnership, which sends nurses to visit low-income women expecting children, have managed to survive in the killing fields of government policy or what it might take to bring more of them into existence.
Part of the challenge lies not just in the public sector but in civil society itself. Mr. Husock largely spares from his critique foundations, nonprofit leaders and the schools that prepare students for careers in philanthropy. Yet many of them are noticeably reluctant to be judgmental—to impose “their values” on others or champion the habits and disciplines of middle-class success. A growing number of philanthropists and nonprofit groups believe that their efforts should be guided by the predilections of those they are trying to help—a belief that can easily shade into permissiveness.
Over the years, philanthropists were often faulted for their well-meaning but overbearing benevolence. Still, they accomplished a good deal. It is a question—one that Mr. Husock might take up in his next foray into this rich topic—whether the civil society we have today would be as successful as the one that helped his father even if the government were doing less.
This piece originally appeared at The Wall Street Journal (paywall)
Leslie Lenkowsky is professor emeritus of philanthropic studies at Indiana University.