Howard Husock. Courtesy | Man­hattan Institute

Amer­icans are mate­rially far better off than they were a century ago. A vast social safety net enables even those at the bottom of the socioe­co­nomic ladder to have their basic needs met. And yet, despite ample gov­ernment spending on various welfare pro­grams — at tax­payer expense — many Amer­icans fail to reach their full potential.

In “Who Killed Civil Society?: The Rise of Big Gov­ernment and Decline of Bour­geois Norms,” released Sept. 10, Howard Husock argues that the pro­motion of middle class values is missing from our attempts at social uplift. 

A senior fellow at the Man­hattan Institute for Policy Research, Husock was moved by his father’s life story to write about this issue. Though orphaned at age 10 during the Great Depression, his father  still enjoyed a pleasant childhood and suc­cessful life. Husock recalls his father cred­iting an entity he referred to as “the Agency” with equipping him to live happily and com­fortably. 

“The Agency,” Husock dis­covered, was the Juvenile Aid Society, a private char­i­table orga­ni­zation. 

In “Who Killed Civil Society?,” Husock examines the attributes of effective charity, ana­lyzing the merits of values-based civil society and the failures of the modern welfare state. 

Since the late 19th century, six figures have shaped the rise, decline, and revival of civil society: pio­neering phil­an­thropist Charles Loring Brace, social reformer Jane Addams, social work founder Mary Richmond, social worker Grace Abbott, civil servant Wilbur Cohen, and con­tem­porary social activist Geoffrey Canada. Husock tells each of their stories, explaining the lessons we can learn from their work.

In 1853, Brace founded the Children’s Aid Society to care for New York City’s street children. Guided by the idea that children’s prin­ciples were decisive in deter­mining their well-being, he pro­vided not only food and shelter to needy children, but also edu­ca­tional and spir­itual oppor­tu­nities, and taught them good behaviour. 

Brace believed that indi­vidual strength and integrity were the keys to a ful­filling life, and taught children not to resent their cir­cum­stances, but instead to overcome them through honest, hard work. Because it was mostly pri­vately funded, the Children’s Aid Society was free to pursue causes according to its own vision.

In Brace’s lifetime, the Children’s Aid Society empowered more than 170,000 children to become upstanding, pro­ductive cit­izens. Husock upholds Brace’s efforts as a model for charity work, and con­trasts it with that of later reformers whose work departed from his ideals of incul­cating social norms and relying on private funding.

Addams began her phil­an­thropic career in 1889 as the founder of Hull House, a set­tlement house on Chicago’s West Side in which better-off res­i­dents lived among immi­grants and members of the lower class and taught them American values by example.

Husock writes that Hull House’s unabashed mor­al­izing would be dis­counted as patron­izing today, but that the min­gling of classes and inten­tional pro­motion of bour­geois norms is imper­ative to a healthy society. Addams, however, later redi­rected her efforts to social reform, dis­cred­iting the power of indi­vidual ini­tiative and instead pro­moting the idea that it was the government’s respon­si­bility to facil­itate eco­nomic justice.

The head of several prominent charity orga­ni­za­tions, Richmond wrote “Social Diag­nosis,” which out­lined the tenets of modern social work. She pop­u­larized the concept that people’s defi­ciencies of char­acter or psyche were the primary factors that caused their mis­fortune, and needed to be treated. Turning from the instil­lation of uni­ver­sally ben­e­ficial bour­geois norms, she cat­e­go­rized people’s ills and pre­scribed ther­apies to “cure” them.

In the twen­tieth century, Abbott and Cohen’s work proved detri­mental to civil society. Abbott, a respected authority on social work, pro­fes­sion­alized social work and fur­thered the idea that social ills must be ana­lyzed and treated. As one of the prin­cipal engi­neers of the expansion of the social service state, Cohen trans­formed — and often cor­rupted — private orga­ni­za­tions with federal funding. Both believed that it was up to the gov­ernment, and not to private cit­izens within com­mu­nities to care for those in need. 

Husock charts the decline of civil society in the middle four chapters of “Who Killed Civil Society?,” but ends the book on an encour­aging note by praising the work of Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada. Canada aimed to improve central Harlem by setting norms for children in the neigh­borhood. 

Mostly pri­vately funded, the Harlem Children’s Zone cleaned up por­tions of Harlem and estab­lished a range of pro­grams to support Harlem fam­ilies and prepare Harlem stu­dents for college. Canada is focused on long-term results, but the Harlem Children’s Zone’s accom­plish­ments are nonetheless impressive: 27,573 adults and children were served by its pro­grams in 2017 and 861 stu­dents who par­tic­i­pated in its pro­grams have gone on to college. 

In “Who Killed Civil Society?,” Husock pro­vides a candid inquiry into the foun­dation of suc­cessful charity work, illus­trating the unmatched efficacy of pri­vately funded, values-based civil society. Unre­strained by political cor­rectness, he cham­pions bour­geois norms in a time when some con­sider them old-fash­ioned, irrel­evant, and even offensive, pro­viding an honest assessment of the needs of America’s poor and the strength of tra­di­tional prin­ciples and indi­vidual integrity.

Husock’s insight reveals that dili­gence and neigh­bor­liness are timeless and that civil society remains the most pow­erful defense against despair.