Does Philanthropy Work Against Collective Action by the Poor?

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June 24, 2015; New York Times

“If I lived in a slum, I think you would have more trouble than you have already, because I’ve got enough spark left in me to lead a mighty good revolt.” So said Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey half a century ago, but despite paroxysms of protest, there has been no revolution of the poor even in the face of increasing income and wealth disparities, stagnant post-recession wages, and a declining homeownership rate (the lowest since 1990) throughout the nation— just a few of the socioeconomic indicators of persistent and deepening poverty.

New York Times op-ed writer Thomas Edsall recently asked why today’s poor aren’t in revolt, echoing the questions of many, including the Economist, which asked, “Why aren’t the poor storming the barricades?” Edsall offers a number of plausible answers, none standing on its own, but providing some explanation when taken together. One of the more persuasive answers is that modern-day poverty is less costly and difficult than in years past. Many of the households in the bottom income quintile of the U.S. are able to obtain or purchase appliances such as televisions, computers, cell phones, air conditioners, and more because the costs of those goods has dramatically fallen. He also suggests that some economists are overestimating the real-world costs of goods and therefore may be unintentionally exaggerating the challenges of living in poverty conditions. There may be some element of plausibility there, though for the 17.6 million households, 15.2 percent of all households, that pay more than half of their monthly gross incomes for housing (nearly one out of every four households that rent), there is little left each month for the relatively more affordable goods and appliances that Edsall describes.

However, a more intriguing explanation of the quiescent poor is Edsall’s observation that since Humphrey’s remark in the 1960s, there has been little public support for collective action and class-based solidarity. Rather, he says, “there is an inexorable pressure on individuals to, in effect, fly solo.” The societal dynamic underway is individualization, a dynamic in which people are seeking and obtaining new personal rights and responsibilities. The consequence of obtaining these new rights and responsibilities, according to German sociologist Nikolai Genov, as cited by Edsall, comes “at the expense of various forms of common good in general, and of various forms of solidarity in particular.”

“Placing an exclusive stress on the expansion of rights and freedoms of individuals by disregarding or underrating the concomitant rise of individual responsibilities brings about social pathologies,” Genov wrote. “They undermine solidarity as the glue of social life.”

Edsall cites University of California at Irvine sociologist David A. Snow, who suggests that “the top priorities of the specific movements associated with individualization—‘the feminist movement, lesbian-gay-bisexual-transgender movements, the black power movement, the disability rights movement, and, most recently, the fat-acceptance movement’—do not lend themselves to broad economic demands on behalf of the less well off.” In his 2013 book, The Future of Social Movement Research, Snow wrote, “concern with distributional inequities and injustices tends to take a back seat to procedural issues and injustices bearing on rights and associated matters of inclusion and exclusion and to group reputational issues.”

It is a fascinating argument, that the shift of American politics to issues of identity rights and privileges works against possibilities of movements to eradicate socio-economic inequities. Do NPQ readers sense the same? Note that Edsall mentions the Occupy movement only once, observing that despite focusing on issues of wealth disparities, Occupy collapsed within a year and overall had little impact on public policy while the public mobilization in favor of net neutrality overwhelmingly succeeded against the political and economic power of cable, technology, and other firms. Edsall might have mentioned that Occupy might have been focused on the concentration of wealth and power in America’s top one percent, but it was hardly an insurrection of the poor led by the poor.

And it raises questions not just for nonprofits, but for philanthropic funders. Keene State University’s Joan Roelofs has long contended, most notably in her 2012 book, Foundations and Public Policy: The Mask of Pluralism, that much of foundation work is to make the “system” work or look like it is working and to support nonprofit “third sector” activities that “directly or indirectly protect and promote capitalism.” That suggests that foundations, even “progressive” foundations that proclaim their commitment to social change and eradicating socio-economic inequities, may actually be damping and perhaps curbing the potential of the poor to storm the barricades. Can foundations aim their resources at eradicating social inequities brought on, per Roelofs, by capitalism? Deep down, do they really want to challenge capitalism, since capitalism is the system that gave them birth—and their tax-exempt assets? Can foundations successfully build “inclusive economies” while they pursue co-equal program areas including “gender, ethnic, and racial justice,” “creativity and free expression,” “civic engagement and government”, and “Internet freedom,” or do those program emphases, while all legitimate and important, work against a focus on poverty?

Benjamin Franklin once said, “I am for doing good to the poor, but I differ in opinion about the means. I think the best way of doing good to the poor is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it.” Edsall’s questions about the impact on individualization on the insurrectional possibilities of the poor suggest that merely making poverty more comfortable, which some of philanthropy does, falls short of Franklin’s prescription. Franklin’s solution itself, however, falls short of the notion that poverty will be best countered when the poor lead themselves out of poverty. For nonprofits, the challenge is how to ensure that efforts to rectify societal inequities that Snow, Genov, and others that lead to individualization can be blended to also promote the collective action by the poor against poverty.—Rick Cohen

  • Gladys Tiffany

    This is an interesting perspective, but I wonder if it includes elements tied to the honkin’ big wall between the rich and the poor that’s been built up by the huge income disparities. Occupy was just one part of social change work going on that this writer is oblivious to. Makes it sound as if he’s just asked a lot of academic and nonprofit buddies their opinions but isn’t in touch with a mass of stuff roiling in the streets.

    • DC

      Gladys those are big leaps of assumptions. And I’m willing to bet you’re under 30 so your experience in community politics, other than Occupy, is limited. I happen to agree with Rick because I’ve seen how nonprofits compromise any potential, coopt is the word we used in the 1960s and 1970s. And this coopting is still going on. Cut Rick some slack and consider that he’s right.

      • Gladys Tiffany

        Nah. I’m not as young as you think, and I’m still seeing lots going on that I don’t see reflected in this essay.

  • Colin Penter

    Great piece again Rick. Writing from Australia I can only agree wholeheartedly with Rick and thank him for this piece. The situation he describes exists here in Australia where large parts of the NFP sector (particularly those part of the sector funded by government, philanthropy and/or corporations) have chosen to distance themselves from social movements and collective action and political mobilisation that aims to highlight and challenge economic inequality and unjust state and corporate power. There are many reasons for them doing that, including the silencing effect of dependence on government and corporate funding, the growing corporatisation of the NFP sector and the open hostility of Federal and State governments and business and corporate interests to the power of activism and collective action by citizens. In Australia, with a few honorable exceptions, political mobilisation and social movements to eradicate socio-economic inequities and challenge corporate and economic power are not driven by NFP organisations, but largely by citizen groups and citizen action.