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February 3, 2019; CNBC

Midway between one shutdown and a potential second, we would like to point out that the stories of economic vulnerability that marked that first period, which lasted more than a month, came from working people who—though lacking savings and thus still living paycheck to paycheck—had been at least getting regular paychecks. The shutdown, however, exhibited quite clearly how frail many working households have become. Many federal employees were forced to visit their local food banks, ask for mortgage extensions, borrow from relatives, and ration their medications. In other words, their households were unsustainable.

Thus, sponsored by the federal government, the whole of the country has been provided a preview of sorts into its own worsening circumstances on the less-moneyed side of the ever-widening wealth gap. In Steve Dubb’s article yesterday, he describes the meta-view of that growing chasm in clear numbers yet again.

Nevertheless, Wes Moore, the CEO of the Robin Hood Foundation, which he calls “the largest anti-poverty nonprofit in New York City,” wants to reassure us that “charities who backed workers during shutdown are stepping up to fight inequality.” He writes, “I watched with pride as anti-poverty interventions we fund stepped up to meet this unexpected crisis.”

This statement is hard to align with the reality we are facing. Since, as Moore says in his op-ed, much of hardworking America “slips in and out of poverty” and is “one missed paycheck” away from poverty, the crisis cannot be called unexpected. Nothing so perilously balanced on such a frail platform could be considered so.

And, at the very least, it’s questionable whether a philanthropic milieu so founded on the excesses of the few could be trusted to develop a strategy to restructure that platform even when it has declared itself as a change agent and more closely aligned itself with community activists. After all, Ken Griffin, who just bought the most expensive home ever sold in New York, at $238 million—right around the corner from a proposed new site for a shelter for 140 homeless men—is a big donor to the Robin Hood Foundation.

And this is, in a nutshell, the problem with the usual narratives of philanthropy being taken out and flown again during a period when we all need to develop more clarity about what is needed to reverse the socio-economic trends that support inequality. How are we to resolve the cognitive dissonance? We would at this point like to point readers to Joan Roelof’s discomfiting classic article, “The Third Sector as a Protective Layer for Capitalism,” where she observes:

Some may see a galaxy of organizations doing good works—a million points of light—but the nonprofit world is also a system of power that is exercised in the interest of the corporate world. Much helpful and good work has been supported, but the energy to devise, promote, and initiate radical alternatives to the present system has been dissipated by the third sector’s protective layer.

—Ruth McCambridge