Radical Help - A Review

Marvin Olasky’s 1992 book, The Tragedy of American Compassion, reframed the way many Americans thought about welfare and compassion. Toward the end of the century that promised to bring utopia to the shores of North America through the New Deal and the Great Society, poverty continued to persist and, at times, threatened to upend society. Throughout the twentieth century, the United States invested billions of dollars in government programs, especially those at the federal level, designed to bring an end to poverty for good.

Looking around, many people recognized that the ever-growing network of programs and promises were not having the desired effect. Olasky’s book proved to be a catalyst for many to rethink their expectations for government poverty relief. The basic thesis of his book is that community solutions have been much more effective at poverty alleviation than impersonal government programs. His theory has largely been met with antipathy from progressives, affirmation from many conservatives, and skepticism by many between.

To some, the problem of poverty is too widespread and too significant for local solutions. Person-to-person charitable efforts are well-intentioned and often beneficial, but cannot hope to solve the needs of the poor. That is the argument made by many proponents of the growth of centralized welfare programs. However, it is less clear to many people that expanding existing programs or creating new offerings with the same bureaucratic model can achieve a better outcome.

In her recent book, Radical Help, Hilary Cottam challenges the expansion of centrally planned model of government poverty alleviation. Writing from progressive perspective, Cottam makes an argument that will sound familiar and welcome to conservative ears: The most effective means of poverty alleviation is the development of community.

Determined to do something practical about the problem of poverty, Cottam set to work redesigning portions of the welfare system in the United Kingdom. She challenged the status quo by asking a profound question of workers within a number of social programs: Who has been helped by your social program so that they are no longer enmeshed in the welfare system?

The inability of any program to show a single family that had been freed from the shackles of poverty through the work of the state led Cottam to conclude, “We had hoped for safety nets that would give us the weft and propulsion of a trampoline but instead we are woven into a tight trap.”

Radical Help documents five experiments that Cottam conducted in an attempt to uncover alternative solutions to poverty alleviation. Four of the five have been deemed successes. All five have in common that they rely on the individuals receiving help to drive the change, that the solutions are locally centered, and that they leverage technology as a means to coordinate human connection rather than as a replacement for it.

The first experiment allowed particular families to coordinate the host of poverty alleviation services they required to chart a course out of poverty. Instead of working with a wide range of social workers from a dozen different government programs, the Family Life experiment allowed a family to pick what help they would get, chart their own course, and get the help they needed to actually make it out of poverty. While this program was expensive in the short term, it reduced the long-term costs by getting multiple families in the experiment off the welfare rolls.

The second experiment helped teens find meaning and purpose by putting them into short-term internships in local businesses. These voluntary programs were coordinated using social technologies and gave teens a glimpse of a world outside the local recreation center. Although the program was scuttled due to the perceived risk of coordinating contact between minors and adults, it illustrates the power of a social network.

Experiment #3 replaced the queues of the unemployment office with a small support group filled with employed, underemployed, and unemployed individuals. Rather than seeking the first possible placement, the Good Work program looked for ways to motivate the unmotivated, focus the undirected, and assist the willing to make personal connections to make progress toward a vocation, not merely a job. Cottam notes that the idea of work as merely a means of earning bread is insufficient, which leads many of the unemployed to bounce from one dead end job to another.

The fourth experiment challenged the idea that the best solution to the stress on the National Health Service (NHS) is simply to dump in more money. Cottam rightly notes that the majority of medical spending is used treat chronic diseases like diabetes, which are often caused and exacerbated by lifestyle choices. The bureaucratic systems of the NHS was designed in industrial fashion to deal with punctiliar events like providing pregnancy services, solving medical emergencies, and performing needed surgeries. Cottam created the Wellogram project, which put healthcare professionals in direct and durable contact with people. By listening to people, asking follow up questions, and getting to know them, the healthcare professionals were able to help people improve their overall health, which in turn reduced their need for expensive medical interventions over a sustained period.

Cottam’s final experiment was designed to serve the aged. Her team created the Circle program, which she describes as “part social club, part concierge service, and part cooperative self-help group.” The basic function of the program was to break down the isolation in communities by putting people, particularly the elderly, in contact with others with similar interests. It also enabled willing volunteers to help their hidden neighbors by doing small things, like picking up groceries; there are many willing people who simply lacked the personal connections to perform these simple services for others. The Circle program used a basic technological platform to help people to help other people––technology was a means to the desired end, not the solution to the problem.

Each of the programs listed above used grants from the government, but relied on localized implementations to create contextual solutions to pervasive dehumanization caused by relational poverty. Cottam’s approach reminds us that we were designed for community, and those programs that encourage personal relationships tend to enhance flourishing in ways that a blank check never will. The goal was not to eliminate all government action for the poor, but to leverage government resources efficiently to accomplish the intended purpose.

As it becomes increasingly apparent that America’s welfare system is ineffective in winning the war on poverty, Cottam’s approach of innovating local solutions with a relational focus may provide a way forward for those who genuinely desire to help the poor, but recognize the devastating social impact of impersonal bureaucratic poverty alleviation strategies.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume from the publisher with no expectation of a positive review.