Howard Husock joins City Journal editor Brian Anderson to discuss Husock’s new book, Who Killed Civil Society? The Rise of Big Government and Decline of Bourgeois Norms.

Government-run social programs funded with tax dollars are thought to be the “solution” to America’s social ills. But in his new book, Who Killed Civil Society?, Husock shows that historically, it was voluntary organizations and civic society, operating independently from government and its mandates, that best promoted the habits and values conducive to upward social mobility.

Learn more about the Manhattan Institute’s Civil Society Awards and fellows program.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks Podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Coming up on today's show, my colleague Howard Husock will join us to talk about his brand new book, Who Killed Civil Society?: The Rise of Big Government and Decline of the Bourgeois Norms.

We've briefly mentioned the book already on the podcast, and if you've already read it, please leave a review on Amazon, by the way. But we're excited to get to Howard in the studio today to dive into a history that doesn't get enough attention, America's long tradition of private philanthropy, civic groups like the Rotary clubs and other volunteer work outside the formal mechanisms of government.

Next week we'll be talking with Heather Mac Donald about her forthcoming essay on San Francisco's raging homelessness crisis. That's a very important piece that's going to be in our fall issue. Right now though we'll take a quick break and we'll be back with Howard Husock after the music.

Brian Anderson: Hi again everyone. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me in the studio today is Howard Husock. Howard's the author of the important new book, Who Killed Civil Society?: The Rise of Big Government and Decline of the Bourgeois Norms.

He's also the director of the Manhattan Institute civil society program, which we'll talk a little bit about today. Howard and he's a contributing editor of city journal longtime. Howard, welcome back to the podcast. Always good to have you on.

Howard Husock: Thanks for having me, Brian. It's a pleasure.

Brian Anderson: The first question that authors are usually asked is what drove you to write the book? So I'll start that way. Why did you want to write this book at this particular moment?

Howard Husock: It's actually a personal story, Brian. In the late 1990s, I became interested in the question of how my father had survived his childhood. In fact, I like to say, and I did write this in City Journal in a long ago essay called how the agency saved my father.

That's really when this book began was with that essay in City Journal, and as I said in that essay, the greatest mystery of my childhood was how my father survived his because my father was orphaned, lost his mother at age five, his father at age 10 in the slums, literal slums of South Philadelphia.

He and his older sister were actually homeless, wandering from one friend's apartment to another, and so it was a real question, and the only clue I had was one that he gave me, "Well, the agency helped out." And I'm going, "The agency what is the agency?"

And only then by digging into archives in Philadelphia, this was in the pre internet era, there was one, did I find out that there was something called the Juvenile Aid Society in Philadelphia. It was a Jewish philanthropic group, entirely philanthropically supported and it placed orphans like my father in foster homes.

We associate foster care so intimately with government support state, but it was not true then, and not only did they vet, as we would say today, the foster families to make sure that they were providing a safe and healthy environment, they had to have their own room orphans like my father where they could do their homework.

But volunteers would check up on him on a very regular basis. Mrs. Stern Burger would come in her black Cadillac. I'm not making this up to see how her ward was doing and she would not only check on the conditions, she had a checklist from the Juvenile Aid Society of values she was to bring up in conversation.

Values such as self respect, self discipline, self governance, good manners at all times and adherence to the moral law. And I'm saying, "Whoa, what happened to those? Why do those sound dated and somehow condescending, and perhaps in some people's ears inappropriate."

And that was the second mystery that drove the book. What happened to those kind of groups and those kind of values? And so it was those twin inspirations that prompted me to write this book.

Brian Anderson: The Juvenile Aid Society, do they still exist?

Howard Husock: The Juvenile Aid Society has evolved as politicians all want to say today. It's the Greater Philadelphia Jewish Family and Children's Service. And it is in fact to a very significant extent, a government contractor of social services. And so in a way it bookends the book to show how that whole world of what we now call social services changed because it did.

Brian Anderson: One of the wonderful things about your book is the kind of texture of personalities that runs through it. You profile a number of important civic leaders in American history.

The first chapter is about Charles Loring Brace. Why don't you tell listeners a little bit about this figure and what his role has been?

Howard Husock: What I tried to do in the book in an effort I hope to make it a book people would read and not just be perhaps adopted in a social work classrooms, even though it's a challenge to social work, was to build an argument through biographical stories of a series of historic figures, and Brace was the first one.

We talk about homelessness today as if it's a crisis that's unprecedented. Well, in the New York of the mid 1850s, homeless children were ubiquitous. They were known mainly for the desperate measures they took to support themselves as boot blacks and particularly as newsboys because there were newspaper wars in New York, and these young teenagers, [tweens 00:06:08] we would even call them today, were out there selling the New York Sun, the New York World, and competing fiercely for street corner revenue.

And they were sleeping... "Where did you sleep last night?" One is asked in Horatio Alger novel. "I slept in the box hotel." "I don't know where that hotel is." Well, it's a box on Spruce street.

So they were living in attict, in cellars and Brace said, "I'm going to do something about this." He was a Methodist minister, but he did not found when he started the Children's Aid Society, a religious organization, it was a secular organization.

This was a new thing in American history, a secular, in fact, ecumenical nonprofit to promote, what I call in the title of the book, bourgeois norms. And so the newsboys would come and he would get them to open savings accounts.

He would talk to them and help them form clubs for recreation, healthy recreation. He tried to create an environment that laid the groundwork for upward mobility. He didn't, for instance, organize them to have a strike against the newspapers. Did he? He said, "No, sell your newspapers honestly, pursue virtue and then you will rise in America. Even if you don't become rich, you'll have a satisfying and gratifying life."

This is the essence of bourgeois norms and he took in literally tens of thousands of these young boys and girls who he taught seamstress skills and those that were considered appropriate to young girls at the time.

These bourgeois values were propounded by a lot of the figures you a profile in the book, Jane Addams, Mary Richmond. This idea of good habits and good comportment is the best road to uplift. If we fast forward to the 21st century, when people talk about promoting these kinds of behavioral norms, as we'd call them today, it's often considered condescending to the poor or preaching to the poor.

Could you say something a little bit about how dramatically the context has shifted?

Howard Husock: Yeah, it's-

Brian Anderson: And what's been lost?

Howard Husock: I think there's a sense that when you say a phrase like bourgeois norms, it's a discussion of the values of the privileged. There's something exclusive about it. The bourgeoisie as criticized by Marx and Mao, but to me the history that I tried to describe in the book is that of bourgeois norms as an inclusive set of norms.

Brace was raised in genteel circumstances in Connecticut. His best friend growing up was Frederick Law Olmsted who would go on to design Central Park. These were people who were raised in an aristocratic kind of a setting with Puritan forebears, but they understood that in effect the secret source, if you will, of their own success and the success of their class in America was that of the bourgeois norms.

And so they set out to share those norms, not to oppress young people or their parents because people like Jane Addams who founded the first settlement house called Hull House, or Mary Richmond considered the founder of social work, they believed in friendly visiting.

They would go visit people in their households and talk to parents, help them learn English, help them become U.S. citizens. All of these were formative, not reformative values. That's the phrase I steal from Charles Loring Brace, the formative, not the reformative. And that's what we've started to lose and that's the story of decline of bourgeois norms at the hands of the social service state that I tell in the book.

Brian Anderson:  As we get into the 20th century, you described the government getting more and more involved in redistribution of income and providing welfare services. Here's a quote from the book, "The federal government would create what became known as a safety net to offer protection against the fluctuations of the business cycle and the family setbacks that come with death or desertion. The more intangible you had more significant help for the poor, equipping them to meet the challenges and exigencies of life was lost in the process."

Describe that a little bit more for our listeners. It's a pretty dramatic thing to say that the emergence of the welfare state dried up in a way the sources of help that you're describing, but in a way you're saying that.

Howard Husock: Here's what I'm not saying. This is not a book that criticizes public assistance, social security pensions for the elderly, unemployment compensation, the financial transfers that we associate with the welfare state which we began with the Social Security Act. I'm accepting those in effect as part and parcel of the industrial economy.

However, what I'm saying is there's a whole other part of the social welfare state that I'm calling the social service state, and it was the sleeping giant of the Social Security Act. Started off with things like widow's pensions, which were tiny in the Social Security Act.

And then it evolved to become a spigot, and wide open spigot of federal funds to groups like the Juvenile Aid Society, like the settlement houses, which used to be entirely independent of government, had their own North star of values and promoted those values. Suddenly they were being asked to address the troubled to reform rather than to be formative.

And the formative is not only in these obscure groups and talking about, there are groups that everybody in America knows about, the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts, Big Brother Big Sister, and so many more. And those have either been had their mission distorted because they've become contractors to deal with the troubled, or they're starved of funds because philanthropy has been distorted.

So those two forces combined to shrink the forces of America that used to promote bourgeois norms

Brian Anderson: During the Bush years, conservatives had a debate over whether government money should be directed to the philanthropic organizations helping the poor that you're holding up for praise in this book.

But having written myself about the history of Catholic charities in America and seeing what happened when they became increasingly dependent on government funding, social welfare funding, how it changed their mission in a way. I've always been skeptical of this approach. What's your view on it?

Howard Husock: Well, if you look at the... If there were a pie chart of philanthropically supported organizations in the United States, they're getting maybe 30 some percent of their money from revenues. They charge people for some services. They're getting maybe 15% from philanthropy, but the plurality of money is coming from the government.

And so what government does, it's like any corporation, if you will, your largest stockholder really calls the shots, and so philanthropy, which used to call the shots, which used to direct how organizations applied their resources, suddenly his matching funds provided by the government. It's the government program which is calling the shots, and it's very, very difficult for government to promote values.

In fact, government promoting values is something with which Americans are very uneasy. I have an example in the book, in New York under mayor Bloomberg, the department of Human Resources, which is the public assistance department, to put it bluntly, undertook a campaign of advertising on the subway, on television, radio urging young women not to become pregnant when they weren't married and when they were teenagers.

Your child, it said in graphic terms is more likely to be poor, more likely to go to jail, more likely to drop out of high school. Don't do this. There's very good social science research that supported that point of view, but there was blow back, incredible blow back against the administration for doing that because there was a sense that it was meddling in people's personal lives in a way that was not appropriate for government.

We don't have that same feeling when Catholic charities operating on its own, not as a government contractor urges abstinence, or sobriety, or any of these bourgeois norms, but when the government does it, it's okay for the government to tell you to get vaccines because it's public health. But when government tells you to not get pregnant, people are uneasy with that.

And so the values proposition should be associated with the independent sector, but that independent sector is no longer independent, it's an arm of government today.

Brian Anderson: The last chapter of your book is about a modern day organization that's trying to bring bourgeois norms, middle-class values to Harlem. It's called the Harlem Children's Zone. Many people have heard about it, founded by Geoffrey Canada. It's a privately funded group that gathers volunteers to clean up the neighborhood, hosts college prep programs. It extends beyond the schools that it helps organize and run with the idea of changing the entire communities.

Is that the way you would describe it?

Howard Husock: Right. He has a baby college, Jeff Canada has a baby college to help young parents be better at raising their kids and to have them aspire. It's very interesting. I think one of the push backs that you referred to earlier against bourgeois norms is there's some kind of racial dimension to them.

And in the book, I go back to the history of the settlement house, which was one of my ideal forms in American history. Over 400 settlement houses in localities all over the country, privately funded, helping immigrants, but they were African American settlement houses even in the deepest Jim Crow South in Atlanta and rural Alabama in Richmond, run by black people for black people and preaching these bourgeois norms.

The biographer of one such founder calls her an African-American Victorian. Such people existed and Geoffrey Canada, who was a favorite of Barack Obama's is in their footsteps. And what he does at the Harlem Children's Zone, he says, quite overtly is to promote bourgeois norms.

Rap stars have heard about the Children's Zone. It has some buzz and they come and say, "We're going to give you a lot of money. We'd like to tour the school." You know what his answer is? "No. Because I read and I hear what you say in your songs and that's not what we're promoting." Instead, he says, "When one kid is going to college or talking about going to college and other kids hear him talking about it, the idea becomes contagious."

This is a very important idea because one of the misapprehensions about the need for government lies in the idea that the only way to reach lots of people to go to scale, that's the phrase that a lot of social service people use is to bring government money to make it bigger and bigger and bigger.

What Canada understands is that the only way to get to scale is through norms. Norms spread, even if you're not in one of his charter schools, well you might be in a public school in Harlem and say, you know God, those charter schools because they're doing really well, maybe I could do that well.

Norms spread, norms scale, and we've lost the predilection to promote bourgeois norms and we've had some unfortunate norms take their place.

 Brian Anderson: You mentioned Obama's support for Canada. At one point early in the Obama years, there was an attempt I think to replicate the program elsewhere. Did that work at all?

Howard Husock: President Obama was going to call them the promise neighborhoods, and there was such a federal program and Jeff Canada became gradually detached from it becoming convinced that he himself was not replicable, and it was that charged up-edness if you will, that he was bringing to it.

And instead we got studies from consulting groups about the impact of promise neighborhoods and they reached such finding as there was better communication between head start and nutrition programs. Whoa, so-

Brian Anderson: It lost sight of the whole mission.

Howard Husock: It did. It started to see the trees and not the forest.

Brian Anderson: Fascinating. Howard, we mentioned at the top of the show that you're the director of our civil society program here at the Manhattan Institute. In a way that is an extension of the interests that are explored in this book.

Would you take a little bit of time to talk about the winners of that program and what makes you excited about it? Describe the program a little bit because many of our listeners may not know about it.

Howard Husock: So here at the Institute we run something called the Civil Society Awards Program, and it's predicated in the idea that we at the Institute are generally about public policy, trying to correct public policy mistakes and propose better public policies.

But it's also integral to our mission to understand that government is not the right vehicle for doing everything. And that's really the proposition that I support through historical argument in the book.

And the good news is that there really are still organizations out there who are in an independent civil society, who are spotting needs and doing something about them on their own. And that's what we do through this awards program.

We solicit nominations from around the country, a lot of times from community foundations, which that itself is a great and interesting movement around the country. These local foundations that have sprung up with local donors' money.

And the organizations that we find out about are often doing the formative work that Charles Loring Brace was doing. So one of my favorite programs are our award winner this year, we're going to announce them, make the awards here in Manhattan.

October 16th there's something called English as a Second Language of Nevada and it's run by... It was founded by a woman in her 80s, and Florence Phillips originally from New York had the idea that we're so many immigrants who are around here in Carson City, Nevada, in Reno, Nevada.

They're working the night shift at the casinos as cooks, and what they really want is to learn English so they can make their way in this country. And she organized a group of what has now become more than 300 volunteers. What they do different from government run programs like the ones you find at community colleges, they go to people's houses.

They have curricula that have been tested, so you don't have to be an experienced teacher to help, and they walk these new immigrants and their children through English lessons. Hundreds of them have gone on to become American citizens. This is directly in the tradition of the settlement house of the teaching of bourgeois values, and can it happen in every community?

Well, we need people to find out about it and say, I want to do that in my community. So what I'd like to say is can we change the course, the downward course of bourgeois norms in the upward course of government that I described in the book? And the answer is yes, but it's not going to be through a new government program.

We've been so acculturated to the idea there's going to be a new war on poverty, there's going to be a new bolt from the blue in Washington that's going to change everything. No, we have to build it ourselves brick by brick, getting involved in the YMCA, getting involved in the Rotary club, the Lion's club revivifying, these kinds of institutions. That's how we'll take back a civil society-

Brian Anderson: And bring it back to life.

Howard Husock: Right, revivify.

Brian Anderson: Yes. Don't forget, listeners, please to check out Howard Husock's excellent new book, Who Killed Civil Society? You can find it on Amazon, wherever books are sold. We'll link to it in the description. It's called Who Killed Civil Society?

You can also find City Journal on Twitter @CityJournal and Instagram @cityjournal_mi. And always, if you like what you've heard on the podcast, give us a rating on iTunes.

Thanks for listening and thanks Howard very much for joining us.

Howard Husock: Thanks Brian.

Photo: South_agency/iStock

More from 10 Blocks