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Philanthropy’s Misguided Ideas for Fixing Ghetto Poverty: The Limits of Free Markets and Place-Based Initiatives

Inequality in America

Editors’ note: This article is from NPQ’s new, spring 2015 edition: “Inequality's Tipping Point and the Pivotal Role of Nonprofits.”

One hundred years ago, progressive thinkers and activists who called for women’s suffrage, an end to lynching, the right of workers to form unions, health and safety standards for workplaces, the eight-hour workday, a federal minimum wage, a progressive income tax, old-age insurance, and government-subsidized healthcare were considered impractical idealists, utopian dreamers, or dangerous socialists. Fifty years ago, those who called for women’s equality, laws protecting the environment, civil rights for gays and lesbians, and greater numbers of black and Hispanic/Latino elected officials were also considered clueless or hopelessly radical. Now we take all these ideas for granted. The radical ideas of one generation have become the common sense of the next.

Just three years ago, the idea of a $15/hour minimum wage was also considered a crazy notion; but in 2014, Seattle passed a citywide minimum wage at that level. This “radical” idea has now become almost mainstream, and in a growing number of cities, local elected officials are proposing similar policies. The dramatic change in so short a time didn’t happen by accident. It is the culmination of years of grassroots activism, changes in public opinion, and frustration with the political gridlock in Washington.

Significant changes come about when people dare to think beyond the immediate crisis, propose bold solutions, and work for steppingstone reforms that improve people’s lives and whet their appetites for further reform.

Helen Keller was once asked if there was anything that could have been worse than losing her sight. Keller replied: “Yes, I could have lost my vision.” Keller was a lifelong radical who participated in the great movements for social justice of her time. In her investigations into the causes of blindness she discovered that the poor were more likely than the rich to be blind, and she soon connected the mistreatment of the blind to the oppression of workers, women, and other groups, leading her to embrace socialism, feminism, and pacifism.1 In a 1924 letter to Senator Robert M. La Follette Sr., Keller wrote: “Superficial charities make smooth the way of the prosperous; but to advocate that all human beings should have leisure and comfort, the decencies and refinements of life, is a Utopian dream, and one who seriously contemplates its realization indeed must be deaf, dumb, and blind.”

Four decades later, Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. made a similar observation: “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.”



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