11:25:19 Who Killed Civil Society?, a book review

I don't find Howard Husock's title of Who Killed Civil Society? particularly apt for what his book is about. For what Husock explores in this book is how over 150 years, America has taken care of the needy, the less fortunate among us (that is, our approach to social welfare).

book cover

To his credit, Husock begins with a personal, concrete example: How did his father, orphaned at age ten during the Great Depression, survive? How did his father age out of foster care and go to engineering school, then join the Navy, and post-War enjoy a solid middle-class life, working as an executive, with patents to his name? The answer was what his father called "the Agency." A private organization, staffed largely by volunteers, called the Juvenile Aid Society that saw to it once a year Husock's father got a new suit of clothes, or that dental work wasn't put off ... the list goes on.

With chapters devoted to pioneers in this wholistic approach like Charles Loring Brace (founder of New York's Children Aid Society) and Jane Addams (founder of Chicago's Hull House). Husock argues helping the needy also meant gently transmitting Victorian bourgeois values, an understood formula for success in life. He contrasts social welfare then with the evolving approach now, increasingly driven by government programs (esp. after The War on Poverty).

What's being lost in social welfare work is bourgeois values, an acceptance of which might be seen as the implied "price" for help. Instead we've "evolved" to what I recently saw on a billboard for a local detox center, HELP THAT IS JUDGEMENT-FREE!

In the 19th & early 20th century, much social welfare was carried out by unpaid volunteers affiliated with religious organizations (which typically are not value-free). But those volunteer numbers have been pushed aside by a growing army of MSW professionals, whose livelihoods are contingent upon permanent government funding.

Of course, the problems of the needy might change with the times, but human nature doesn't. Those in need, in their dark moments, simply want to know somebody cares. They don't get that when they're asked to fill out forms for aid. The Care Quotient is probably low. On the other hand, when I'm working at the food pantry run by a faith-based organization, people who come in know I'm a volunteer (my badge says so) and that counts for Caring and I see gratitude in their faces. And that might be an illustration of the thesis Husock seeks to make. I only wish he had a better title for the book!

Who Killed Civil Society? by Howard A. Husock, 2019, Encounter Books, New York & London, 168 pp., ISBN: 978-1-64177-058-3

Image credit: wsj.com


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