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The mask of pluralism.

Sally Covington directs California Works Foundation, a nonprofit created by the California Labor Federation to promote a just economy through applied research, policy development and labor-community alliance building. She worked with the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy to increase foundations' responsiveness to marginalized constituencies. She authored Moving a Public Policy Agenda: The Strategic Philanthropy of Conservative Foundations and reports examining philanthropic responsiveness to low-income communities, women, people of color and other disenfranchised constituencies. The author would like to thank Fred Block, Eileen Foley, Ken Jacobs, Mike Miller and Ellen Scott for their helpful comments on drafts of this piece.

Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism by Joan Roelofs and Poverty Knowledge: Social Science, Social Policy, and the Poor in Twentieth-Century U.S. History by Alice O'Connor each point to the important role that private philanthropy has played in the construction of liberal ideology and the social sciences. Their work is in the American tradition of radical criticism by theorists like Thorstein Veblen and C. Wright Mills, each of whom wrote from within his respective academic tradition--but from its margins.

Roelofs' critique is the more sweeping and ideological of the two. She argues that liberal foundations have so shaped the intellectual agendas, institutions and milieu of the social scientific, policy and advocacy communities that we hardly notice how profound and ubiquitous their influence has been. Therein lies their power. Through the creation and support of academic centers, disciplinary fields of study, faculty and doctoral research, independent think tanks, public interest law firms and other nonprofit organizations, foundations have "elicit(ed) consent by the production and dissemination of ideology that appears to be merely common sense."

While Roelofs begins with the Progressive era, she focuses most of her attention on foundation activities since World War 2. The Ford Foundation figures prominently in her argument that liberal ideology and the development of American social science have been fundamentally intertwined. Following World War 2, Ford played a very influential role in the rise of behavioral science, which put more traditional questions of social structure and power aside to focus on individual psychology and group behavior. Influenced by the rise of cold war anti-communism and the perceived need to ensure the stability of the American political system, Ford distributed $23 million between 1951 and 1957 "to transform all fields of political science into the scientific study of behavior, which included expressed attitudes, voting, abstaining, lobbying, coalition-building and other observable activities." The consequences were profound. Political scientists engaged in more traditional social and power structure research were marginalized, and generations of graduate students and young faculty were socialized into behavioral studies.

Roelofs also argues that America's vast nonprofit sector has served an important "systems maintenance" function by coopting leaders, fragmenting dissent and promoting social change projects that only marginally, if at all, address systemic economic and social problems. Take the case of civil rights funding, which Roelofs regards as a clear example of de-radicalization. Although Ford, Rockefeller and Carnegie provided support for civil rights, their approach was to fund moderate alternatives to more militant, independent and mass-based organizations like the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the Black Panthers and community organizing in the tradition of Saul Alinsky. Under Ford and Rockefeller leadership, for example, "the National Urban Coalition was created in 1967 to transform 'black power' into black capitalism. Foundations donated $15.6 million in 1970 to moderate black organizations, mostly to the National Urban League, the NAACP [and its separate Legal Defense and Education Fund], and the Southern Regional Council." Meanwhile, SNCC, during its most influential and participatory period several years earlier, received only a total of $25,000 in outside support. Even the most progressive foundations of the time, including Taconic and New World, were unwilling to fund SNCC directly. Instead, they provided support to the Voter Education Project, set up through the Southern Regional Council, which then distributed funds to the NAACP, the Congress of Racial Equality, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and to SNCC. By 1972, however, SNCC had disappeared.

In addition to de-radicalization, Roelofs argues that liberal foundations' support for the nonprofit sector has had at least two other important effects, one ideological in nature and the other practical. The first effect has been the vindication of the pluralist view that power is widely dispersed within the American political system. The second has been to fragment dissent. In her words:
   It is to the elite's advantage to be
   countered by a "mass movement"
   consisting of fragmented, segmented,
   local and non-ideological bureaucracies
   doing good works and, furthermore,
   being dependent on foundation
   support. Diverse organizations
   emphasize differences among the disadvantaged;
   ethnic, racial, sexual,
   rural-urban, or age, and they discourage
   a broad left recognizing common

Roelofs' book often reads like a rant against the philanthropic elite. This is too bad, for it will undoubtedly contribute to her argument being dismissed. Fortunately, much of her case is supported by Alice O'Connor's meticulously researched treatment of the role that liberal foundations have played in the construction of "poverty knowledge" over the course of the 20th century. While foundations per se are not O'Conner's central focus, her 20th century historical review of social scientific ideas about poverty deeply implicates American philanthropy in our collective framing of the poverty issue and our nation's obsession with improving poor people.

O'Connor locates the roots of this obsession in the 1920s, when "corporately-organized philanthropy" arrived to shift the attention of Progressive-era social investigators from studying poverty to studying poor people. Similar to Roelofs, O'Connor identifies Rockefeller, Carnegie and Russell Sage as central to this shift. The Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial, for example, distributed more than $58 million between 1922 and 1929 to upgrade "the stature and scientific credo of the social sciences," a vast sum at the time. These funds heavily subsidized such "Chicago-school" luminaries as Robert E. Park and Ernest W. Burgess who transformed Progressive era "political economy" investigations of poverty into studies of the "social ecology" of poor communities.

Park and Burgess' social ecology perspective not only rejected the settlement house tradition of social action research but also located poverty as an expression of cultural lag and the failure of new immigrants to assimilate into American society. Poverty was thus treated as a natural and inevitable "by-product of modernization," rather than viewed in relation to labor markets and the industrial economy. The consequence of this shift was significant and profound. As O'Connor notes: "The Chicago-school sociologists wielded enormous influence in the discipline and established wide-ranging research and policy networks through which their ideas about poverty, social disorganization and community-based intervention would find a way first into local practice and eventually into the War on Poverty."

O'Connor also notes how "apolitical" the social ecology model appeared by explaining urban poverty in natural terms rather than as the socially-constructed result of industrial capitalism and a restructured labor process. Under the imprimatur of social science, American philanthropy thus helped to develop the basic ideological framework within which it would fashion its responses to poverty and social disadvantage over the 20th century, from community action in the 1960s to systems reform in the 1980s to welfare-to-work demonstration projects and evaluations in the 1990s.

The rise of behavioral science further set the stage for "individualizing poverty as a social problem and locating its origins in behavior, not economic or social arrangements." The Ford Foundation and other major national philanthropies supported a growing number of university-based research institutes to advance the interdisciplinary study of human behavior. "Few of the insights from this war-tinged behavioral science," O'Connor notes, "boded particularly well for the working class or the poor." It was only in the early 1960s that social scientists began to resist the individualizing thrust of the culture and personality research. Two types of analyses emerged, one based in community action theory and the other in a structuralist critique that viewed poverty in relationship to larger economic and demographic transformations reshaping America's cities. The former prevailed in political and policy terms. The Ford Foundation, the National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) and the President's Committee on Juvenile Deliquency (PCJD) all played a central funding role in the conceptual and programmatic development of community action as the leading strategy for urban poverty alleviation.

Community action theory combined the Chicago-school "social ecology" concepts of community disorganization and reorganization with the developing ideas of Lloyd Ohlin and Richard Cloward that "delinquency" among youth resulted from "systemic barriers to legitimate opportunity." Such barriers resulted from the unresponsiveness of mainstream social institutions to the needs of inner-city residents and communities. Institutional reform was thus regarded as necessary to diffuse opportunity more widely to inner-city residents and to restore social service agencies as vehicles for the effective assimilation of the poor into the economic and social mainstream. To implement these ideas, Ford, later joined by the Department of Labor, the National Institute of Mental Health and the PCJD, began sponsoring community-based experiments that treated low-income communities as "laboratories for research-based reform." Unlike their earlier counterparts, however, these experiments "had far more to say about problems of cultural adjustment and social organization than about labor conditions." Indeed, the Ford Foundation's Gray Areas Program spent $26.5 million in Boston, Oakland, New Haven, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C., as one internal Foundation document stated, "to speed the transition of the urban in-migrant and 'slum resident' from a person with inadequate education and work skills to one prepared to compete for jobs in the urban economy." Never mind growing isolation and decline of inner-city communities wrought by industrial decentralization, white flight from cities, and federal housing and transportation policies accelerating these economic and demographic trends.

Although Ford, the National Institute of Mental Health and the PCJD had launched community action on an experimental basis, the Kennedy administration responded quickly and favorably to the idea. Based in social scientific ideas about poverty and opportunity, community action's political attractiveness was that it offered the administration a cost-effective way to take action on a problem to which affluent Americans had been newly awakened, but without interfering with its prior commitment to pursue economic growth through major new tax cuts. Following the Kennedy assassination, the federal government's War On Poverty thus went forward, with community action serving as the basic conceptual framework. The 1964 Economic Report to the President outlined the Administration's plan, which combined a growth strategy with a more targeted set of social service and employment training programs aimed at the hard-core poor. "For all of its potential radicalism," O'Connor concludes, "community action was principally aimed at what appeared to be a more tractable and ideologically acceptable target for change: the cultural deficiencies of the poor." Despite awareness of larger economic and demographic trends, "community action consistently steered clear of policies that would entail direct government intervention into local economies, and remained tentative in addressing the problem of race."

During and since the War on Poverty, community organizers have offered their own critical assessments of foundation and government-sponsored community action. Indeed, Saul Alinksy not only ridiculed Ford's Gray Areas Program, saying things like "I've never seen a gray ghetto," but also offered an early and scathing indictment of the federal government's War on Poverty. Arguing that "poverty involves poverty of power as well as poverty of economy," Alinsky believed that government-funded community action was, at best, ill conceived and misguided. At worst, it would "suffocate militant independent leadership and action organizations." His critique of the War on Poverty's modus operandi, which he called the "con game gimmick of consensus," is worth quoting at length:
   They begin by creating a so-called
   consensus group (of course the consensus
   with City Hall) whereby they
   pick up every two-bit little store front,
   every little agency which has been
   struggling along with the community,
   which not only has a complete lack of
   any impact on the life of the people,
   but are largely unknown to the local
   people. And all of these tiny groups
   are brought together on an overall
   committee on which the major representative
   organization is relegated and
   reduced to being one of 25 groups.
   Furthermore, all of these tiny outfits,
   many of them defined as stooges controlled
   and supported by outside interests,
   are then fortified with poverty
   grants and suddenly acquire influence
   in the community purely by the power
   of being able to dispense a big chunk
   of money In the field of organized
   labor this is what is known as union-busting
   and is a common pattern.

Alinsky's critique of government-sponsored community action was and remains a powerful one. Indeed, the consensus process he describes above remains at the center of many foundation-funded comprehensive revitalization initiatives today. Still, his critique differs from the one that O'Connor offers us. Although O'Connor acknowledges the political tensions that played out within community action--tensions that led to the program's quick demise--her larger focus is on the common ideological thread running through foundation and government-initiated poverty alleviation efforts since the early part of the 20th century. Notwithstanding the War on Poverty's community action component (however poorly conceived or doomed to failure), the allocation of federal anti-poverty funds reflected the conventional wisdom that what poor people most need are better services to help move them into the mainstream economy. With 90% of War on Poverty funds allocated through the Office of Economic Opportunity, the program of community action was based on "a fundamentally limited idea, the culture of poverty, that effectively skirted the systemic nature of social inequality and economic change."

The policy road not taken, of course, was one based on the structuralist argument that the roots of poverty lie not in the character or behavior of the poor but rather in the larger problems of industrial relocation, unemployment, low wages and labor exploitation. John Kenneth Galbraith's The Affluent Society, for example, attacked the conventional wisdom that growth alone would solve the poverty problem. Indeed, as O'Connor notes, he argued that the "single-minded pursuit [of growth] came at the expense of inflation, excessive consumer debt, corporate concentration of power, the rise of the military-industrial complex, and a starved public sector." In An American Dilemma, Gunnar Myrdal also pointed to the dangers of growth, absent policies to promote social justice. His proposals included direct job creation, minimum wage increases, increased public sector investments in impoverished areas and large-scale income redistribution.

Since the War on Poverty, little has fundamentally changed in philanthropic or social scientific approaches to poverty and its alleviation. O'Connor demonstrates that the 1970s simultaneously marked a retreat from the stated goal of poverty eradication and a major expansion in the poverty research establishment, with philanthropic foundations and federal funding agencies playing key roles. The federal government expanded its support of poverty research from just under $3 million in 1965 to almost $200 million in 1980, and foundations often worked in tandem with federal funding agencies to support ever more rigorous studies of poverty and to implement scientific evaluations of social programs that increasingly focused on moving welfare recipients into the low-wage labor market. The Ford Foundation and the U.S. Department of Labor, for example, created the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation in 1974. Although it came quickly to address the issue of work, it did so as "social rehabilitation, not as a problem of structural decline in employment and wages."

With its growing technical sophistication, the poverty research establishment thus accommodated rather than challenged the growing conservative critique that government programs had fueled the very problem they sought to solve by eroding poor people's work ethic and fostering an unhealthy dependency on government handouts. Indeed, by consistently focusing on the poor themselves, liberal poverty researchers facilitated the massive assault on federal social programs that began under the Reagan Administration in 1981 and continues today. However troubling the conservative policy agenda may be to the sponsors and practitioners of the liberal poverty establishment, O'Connor is unstinting in her assessment of their fundamental complicity:
   Poverty knowledge played a central
   role, throughout the 1980s and 1990s,
   in the official redefinition of poverty as
   an individual pathology at a time when
   social and economic conditions were
   growing measurably worse. That this
   happened partly at the behest of a
   deeply conservative political regime
   did not make the experts less complicit;
   that it was couched in the language
   of scientific objectivity did not make it
   a less political act.

Both the Roelofs and O'Connor books are welcome additions to the still-limited body of research on American philanthropy and its intersection with American politics and social policy. Indeed, as Roelofs caustically maintains, the scant amount of contemporary or historical research on foundations reflects their efforts to "hide their hands" by working through buffer organizations, failing to encourage and fund critical research and further obscuring themselves through "ideological mystification." While one might wish for more artful public argument than Roelofs provides, her conclusions often have the ring of truth.

Her book's great problem, however, is that, short of socialist revolution, it appears to leave little, if any, room for meaningful action. The nonprofit sector serves as a "protective layer for capitalism." Liberalism "incorporates all challenging trends." All reforms are "system-legitimating." One might argue that her critique of liberal foundations does not obligate her to provide strategies for more radical social transformations. But, because the absence of radical social change is offered as irrefutable evidence of foundations' ideological hegemony, it seems incumbent on her to address what would constitute meaningful, "counter-hegemonic" action. Her apparent assumption that non-market alternatives to capitalism are still a believable alternative makes this all the more true.

While O'Connor's analysis is not preoccupied with system-legitimating, rather than system-challenging, effects of private philanthropy, she joins Roelofs to argue that public narratives about the nature of poverty and the economy matter greatly as frames for action. Philanthropy has played a highly influential role in setting the terms of debate--a debate that has consistently evaded the role of both markets and public policy in generating and sustaining vast inequalities of income, wealth, power and opportunity.

Although O'Connor calls for new poverty knowledge, she leaves aside the question of whether the giant liberal foundations can ever be pushed or persuaded to reconstitute it on more structural grounds, much less to provide meaningful support to institutions and strategies capable of reducing the income and wealth gap, restoring full employment at higher wages, and stopping the growth of the low-wage labor market. Roelofs would say no, that those who lead the 20th century mainstream foundations are a part of the power elite, pure and simple--a viewpoint with merit. Even when foundations have supported "controlled" social change, it has always constituted a miniscule fraction of their overall grantmaking.

Still, the steep deterioration in labor market conditions for those in the bottom third of the nation's income distribution may provide compelling new ground for progressives to organize for a reconstructed philanthropic practice. Indeed, the limitations of economic growth strategies and neighborhood level initiatives to significantly improve the economic circumstances of the majority of working families have never been clearer. Notwithstanding sustained economic growth over the 1990s, the average American family saw little gain in income since the 1970s, and the bottom 40% actually lost income. Growth's failure to significantly improve the economic circumstances of the bottom half of the income distribution reflects the fact that productivity-generated gains in income and wealth largely accrued to the very top income brackets. Economist Paul Krugman notes that 70% of the income rise in the average family went to the top one percent.

It is not at all hard to discern why: the decline in union power and density, the class skew to American voting patterns, campaign finance imperatives that force candidates and elected officials to cater to the interests of high-income families and concerted efforts by political conservatives to justify the nation's spiraling inequality through public narratives about responsibility and opportunity in American society have combined to produce a considerable rightward shift in the nation's center of political gravity. Those narratives have had far-ranging impact, not only on official thinking and elite opinion but also among those working at the community level for change.

Ultimately, the willingness of American philanthropy to address the "poverty of power and poverty of economy" about which Alinsky spoke may in part depend on our collective willingness to mount a more vigorous challenge to the funding practices and priorities of mainstream foundations. The analyses that Roelofs and O'Connor present strongly suggest that resource mobilization strategies for economic and social justice should not be based on appeals to mainstream funding institutions but rather on a combination of grassroots fundraising, member dues from unions, community organizing and faith-based institutions, progressive funders, and individual donors whose vision of society is broader than their own selfish or narrow interests. This approach is undoubtedly necessary and important.

Still, with billions of tax-deductible dollars distributed annually, the major foundations shouldn't be left unchallenged. It is at least worth considering a new strategy, one that organizes labor, community organizers and organizations, supportive religious institutions and academics to treat foundations as powerful institutions that must be made more accountable to the public interest. No doubt the challenge would be considerable. Neither public nor private, foundations don't make easy targets. Since they aren't profit-making institutions, strikes and boycotts won't work. Foundation boards aren't elected by anybody, so voting won't help. And since private endowments finance their operations, not much can be done in the legislative arena. They are indeed peculiar American institutions--a holdover from an earlier era when the noblesse oblige of the upper class was supposed to take care of peasants and laborers.

Adding to this basic difficulty is the practical reality that social and economic justice organizations have themselves come to depend on foundation dollars. The chase for dollars often compels destructive competition for scarce resources that exacerbate turf battles and encourage organizations to find and occupy a specialized niche to survive. Whether or not progressives can unify to take up the organizing challenge of philanthropic reform remains an open question.
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Author:Covington, Sally
Publication:Social Policy
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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