Asking Charity to do the Work of Social Justice

In a recent article in Slate Magazine City University professor and historian David Nasaw (the author of The Chief: The Life of William Randolph Hearst) questions, for the most part the unquestioned, respected, and admired place of private philanthropy in the life of our country. Why, it was great news all around, wasn’t it, when we learned about Warren Buffett’s planned 32 billion dollar gift to the Gates Foundation? The Foundation already had some 32 billion dollars of its own, and was to be the recipient in the near future of another 32 billion, again from Gates himself, in the form of Microsoft stock, all that together totaling some 96 billion dollars! The largest sum of private money in existence, easily beating the combined endowments of the Vatican, the Ivies, Stanford, MIT, and the University of Texas, although still only about 3% of the 2007 budget of the United States.

But how does David Nasaw put private philanthropy, this year amounting to about $280 billion, how does he put all this private giving into question? First of all he reminds us that early in the last century self-perpetuating private foundations were said to pose a “menace to the country’s future” because, as it was claimed anyway, “the private foundation, was a profoundly anti-democratic institution, one that concentrated too much wealth—and power—in the hands of trustees who were neither elected nor accountable to the public.”

Then Nasaw reminds (well not really “reminds” us) but tells us of the Colorado coal miner who complained loudly at the time about $250,000 of Rockefeller Foundation money that had been allocated for a retreat for migratory birds. The miner insisted that the Rockefeller money was the product of his and other workers’ labor and that he and his fellow workers ought to have a say in how it was spent. Why migratory birds? Why not a safe retreat for his wife and his children? And closer to home, why AIDs in Africa? Why not failing inner city schools?

Nasaw ends his article by quoting William Jewett Tucker, a future president of Dartmouth College, who in 1891 while criticizing Andrew Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth, declared that “a society could make no greater mistake than asking charity to do the work of social justice.”

Wow, I said to myself. Isn’t this exactly what has happened? This is our country today. A lot of private charity, certainly, but no where near enough to satisfy the claims of social justice. And new charitable foundations, such as that of Bill and Melinda Gates, are the insurance that this visibly deficient method of accomplishing “social justice” will continue to prevail. Most of all the Gates Foundation will enable governments even more than in the past to do less in the future.

Now no one really expects Foundations to do all the work of social justice, not even most of it. For the social justice work of Foundations can go no further than their charitable contributions can take it.

Let me give you an example. You have an inner city school system with some 10 elementary schools, each with some 500 students. The kids are in school all morning and while there they are mostly preparing for tests because of the No Child Left Behind law of 2001. They get out of school between 1 and 2 and they have very few good places to go, good things to do during the long afternoon hours. Art, music, shop, and sports activities, the sorts of activities that are the rule in private schools, are almost non existent for them, until some Gates or other private foundation money turns up. But that money is only enough to enable just one of these schools to create afterschool activities such as theater, a boys chorus, a girls soccer team. The other nine schools will go without.

The one program in the one school is presented as a pilot program, that is, a program from which kids in other schools will eventually benefit when the program gets beyond the pilot stage. But it never gets beyond that stage, and after 2 or 3 years it may even lose the continuation of that initial funding. Now the school system is not at fault. For everyone is of the opinion that this is the sort of thing that only private funding can bring about, and there’s just not enough of that. No one’s at fault. That’s just the way things are.

So what has happened? The government is off the hook, meaning that the public authorities don’t have to face up to the inadequacy of their work with inner city
children. The authorities don’t see as their responsibility to provide the vital, asset and confidence building activities that children need. Instead they pass this responsibility by default on to the philanthropic community. But this community, as we have seen, can not do more than a small portion of what is needed, with the result that things go on much as they always have. And for too many kids in our inner cities the conditions of their lives don’t get any better.

It’s hard not to conclude that the Gates money, and charitable giving in general, may not be the great blessing it’s taken for, but rarther an insurmountable obstacle to the public’s acceptance of full responsibility for the health of our children living with unmet needs in our impoverished inner city neighborhoods.

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