November 15, 2017; The Pitt News
Here’s what we know about economic and social inequality: We won’t social work our way out of it. We won’t educate our way out of it. We won’t invent our way out of it. Economic and social inequality is rooted in the structure of economic and social relationships. Measures to ameliorate the conditions of the lower classes will, at best, result in an occasional exceptional individual escaping his or her inherited status. Therefore, Mayor Bill Peduto’s call for elite nonprofits in Pittsburgh to combat inequality will require more than social work or education or technological innovation. The elite eds and meds in Pittsburgh can’t think their way out of the dilemma of two societies, separate and unequal.
That said, Mayor Peduto’s on the right track in asking Pittsburgh’s elite nonprofits to invest in an effort to transform class barriers. As discussed in NPQ, Pittsburgh seems to have found a way to balance the competing interests of the philanthropic elite and the grassroots activists.
But when The Pitt News, the University of Pittsburgh’s student newspaper, editorializes that “Peduto demands nonprofit conscience—Pitt included,” the university community needs to be ready to work for structural social changes that that may challenge their own institutional self-interests. Redressing social and economic inequality is not just investing in tutoring programs for low income residents of surrounding communities.
Pitt News characterizes the mayor’s statement as a request for Pittsburgh’s “Big Four” (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Pittsburgh, and Highmark Blue Cross/Blue Shield) to “create an organization addressing disparities in the City.” This characterization is a little misleading. The Post-Gazette article Pitt News cites as a source does say the mayor was asking the Big Four to “build an organization addressing disparities, inequities and ‘lost opportunity’ in the city.” But the context of the article makes it clear that the elected leadership, the council and the mayor, will be calling the shots. The difference is important. The mayor is asking for the tax-exempt elites to fund social change, not to lead it.
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Steve Dubb in “Pittsburgh Grapples with the Rise of the Nonprofit Industrial Complex” captures the conflict between the good intentions of the philanthropic elite and the self-serving nature of their operations, which include using tax-exempt status to pay out exorbitant executive salaries and control the levers of government with campaign donations.
Alas, the Pitt editorial falls into a common presumption when it supposes that the elite nonprofits should guide the redevelopment of the community. “As they benefit from the City’s diverse population and growth, it’s up to them to make every effort they can to ensure that growth is sustainable, accessible and equitable.” Wrong! Until inequity is tamed, well intentioned oligarchs need to exercise restraint and humility when working in civic transformation.
Structural change begins by paying taxes (or making payments in lieu of taxes) on their enormous institutional wealth. Change begins with pay equity for employees. Change means locating new affordable developments in high opportunity suburbs and supporting housing choice voucher mobility. Change means removing toxic lead from houses and the water system. Change means real tax reform and not just tax cuts for the elite. That’s what the public has a right to expect in exchange for permitting wealthy elite corporations to hide behind tax-exempt status.
Most of all, change means supporting grassroots empowerment instead of pro forma civic engagement.
Every metro has a different mix of corporate/philanthropy leadership, grassroots activists, and elected officials. Pittsburgh seems blessed by three strong sectors with elected leadership positioned to manage the democratic processes so that all interests contribute to a greater vision. Mayor Peduto’s record of success at balancing powerful interests with the voices of ordinary citizens is the prologue to a new, more ambitious campaign to build a 21st-century city.—Spencer Wells