Politics & Policy

Worldwide Social Engineering, Brought to You by All the Smart Philanthropists

(Theaphotography/Dreamstime)

‘While we are making some big changes at the foundation, what will not change is our commitment [to] pursuing the cause of justice and dignity for all people, everywhere.” That’s how Darren Walker, the president of the Ford Foundationm, introduced the decision last week to devote all of the philanthropy’s wealth to solving the problem of inequality. There is a paradox to this new mission, though: Ford’s $11 billion endowment has blossomed under a booming stock market, and that same stock market is probably the chief source of inequality today.

But never mind those pesky economic realities. You have to give the folks at Ford credit for dreaming big. “We are talking about inequality in all its forms — in influence, access, agency, resources, and respect. We would argue that inequality, in one form or another, is coded into just about every one of our social ills.”

Indeed, on one level, this change at Ford is just semantic. Since, according to the Ford view, we can trace most of the world’s ills back to inequality, the foundation is merely doubling down on its plans for worldwide social engineering. You might think, for instance, that a focus on inequality would steer the foundation away from, say, funding the arts. But of course, there’s inequality in “access” to museums. Similarly, one might think technology would fall outside the purview of the foundation, but then you’re not thinking about the “digital divide.” Whatever the subject, the people on the bottom have too little, and the people on the top have too much.

Ford is hardly alone in its focus on inequality as the cause of most problems. The Russell Sage Foundation, for instance, is currently funding a project called “The Role of Private Schooling in Contributing to the Increase in Inequality of Educational Outcomes between Children from Low- and High-Income Families.” One guesses the researchers won’t see fit to mention the role of private schools in giving low-income children the kind of education that their neighborhood public schools fail to offer. Nor are they likely to explore the possibility that school-voucher programs could expand those opportunities further.

Indeed, most of these programs investigating or fighting inequality are rather one-sided. Numerous philanthropic projects currently under way — “Investigating the Political Donations of the Corporate Elite from 1980 to 2014,” “How Do the Rich Rule? Public Opinion, Parties, and Interest Groups in Unequal Policy Influence,” and “The Dynamics of Racialization: How Welfare Evaluations Reproduce Racial Stereotypes and Aggravate Symbolic Racism” — seem less like open-ended research topics and more like background material for Bernie Sanders’s talking points.

A key pillar of the inequality program at the Nathan Cummings Foundation is to “challenge structures and ideas that allow a vastly disproportionate share of the nation’s wealth to be concentrated in the hands of the few.” While the $415 million foundation is still developing funding guidelines for its inequality program, its leaders have announced that “insisting on market-based approaches and self-reliance on the one hand, and the need for social safety net programs on the other, has not done enough to address fundamental changes in the structure of the American economy.” In other words, expanding the safety net is not enough to counteract the excesses of our economic system. We need to fundamentally overturn the American ideals of self-reliance and the free market.

For these foundations, expanding the safety net is not enough to counteract the excesses of our economic system. We need to fundamentally overturn the American ideals of self-reliance and the free market.

There is almost no talk of economic growth in these foundations’ programs, because the assumption is that such growth would benefit only those at the top. The redistribution of resources is the priority, and it needs to start at the ground level. Ford is collaborating with the Open Society Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight, and Mozilla Foundations to fight digital inequality. “A tiered system of Internet access is, in effect, a separate but equal regimen,” Alberto Ibargüen, Knight’s president, told the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Talk about defining inequality down.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the philanthropic world is also convinced that inequality is plaguing our justice system. Rather than concern themselves with the broken families and deep pathologies that plague our inner cities or even the union rules that keep the worst teachers in front of the poorest children, the Open Society Foundations gave a grant to the Center for Policing Equity at UCLA to create a national database of police behavior.

The MacArthur Foundation seems convinced that incarceration itself is the problem and will offer $75 million to grantees who can figure out how to reduce jail populations. When it comes to inequality, much of the focus is on so-called root causes and very little on proximate ones. Perhaps if you wanted to reduce incarceration, for example, you might think of ways to reduce crime. A good start would be strengthening two-parent families, good schools, and neighborhoods where the criminally inclined are worried about getting caught by a strong police force.

But for too many of America’s biggest philanthropies, this represents small thinking. Douglas Nelson, the former leader of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, believes that a $50 million program that the foundation offered to disadvantaged youth in the 1990s failed because it wasn’t big enough. “We knew we weren’t going to level the playing field by making changes in curriculum or by supporting foster care,” Mr. Nelson told the Chronicle of Philanthropy. “You need a comprehensive commitment by the whole country.”

Is that the new bar? We have to get a commitment by the whole country in order to improve the lives of the poor? This month the Philanthropy Roundtable put out a guidebook for donors called “Clearing Obstacles to Work: A Wise Giver’s Guide to Fostering Self-Reliance.” It features programs such as “Cincinnati Works.” CW offers a class in “work ethics, problem-solving, personal budgeting, life values, self-confidence, employer expectations, and finally the techniques of applying and interviewing for jobs.” Then the nonprofit offers “intensive job-search and placement help.” CW partners with more than 70 employers and makes 600 job placements each year. One needn’t spend billions of dollars to make inroads in this area. Indeed, the guidebook has suggestions for people looking to give away as little as $1,000.

But this is not the kind of “systemic change” that most of the major philanthropies are looking for. By saying they are going to fix income inequality rather than give the poor a hand up, our philanthropic elites make their projects sound both more high-minded and impossible at the same time. Don’t be fooled.

James Piereson is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and the author of Shattered Consensus: The Rise and Decline of America’s Postwar Political Order. Naomi Schaefer Riley is the author of The Faculty Lounges . . . and Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Paid For.

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