Philanthropy With Strings

More
I

IF there is one thing on which all men have at all times agreed, it is the beauty and excellence of philanthropy. In the days before the common people had gained control, government made no effort to relieve human suffering, and the resources for its alleviation had to be coaxed out of private hands. To the ministers of relief the generous giver seemed a saint, and so the tradition grew up that it is unbecoming to 'look a gift horse in the mouth.'

Inevitably the gratitude and admiration which the public feels for benevolence is taken advantage of by those seeking to ingratiate themselves with their fellow citizens. It has long been recognized by the sponsors for charitable enterprises that the candidate for public office offers an easy mark for the collector. The popularity-hunter has always appreciated the wisdom of subscribing handsomely to benevolent enterprises. Infamous businesses have sought to insure tolerance for their nefarious operations by giving heavily and conspicuously to charities with a strong sentimental appeal. Liquor dealers and the proprietors of gambling houses and keepers of low resorts have been prompt with big contributions for the relief of visible dramatic suffering, such as the hunger or cold of women and children.

In the bad old days of bank failures, the capitalist who had slipped out of the back door of a bank with a satchel of loot, while the tricked depositors were hammering in vain at the front entrance, sought to turn aside public odium and win his way back to respectability by a consistent course of diplomatic and ostentatious giving. Public utility companies have often made a point of subscribing to charitable and civic undertakings, and their generosity has fluctuated pretty closely with the imminence of attack upon their privileges and their policies.

The resort to philanthropy as a means of propitiation becomes more general as the public becomes more and more critical of the ways of business. Eight or nine years ago it was often predicted that 'muck-raking' would so wound, exasperate, and alienate the rich that the fountains of benevolence would dry up. Exactly the opposite has occurred. Exposure has had a wonderful effect in loosening the purse-strings of the exposed and the exposable. As the impertinent question, 'Where did he get it?' becomes more insistent, and busybodies with lanterns go poking and peering about the foundations of majestic fortunes, the rush to philanthropic cover becomes ever more noticeable.

All the gifts by which wrong-doers contrive to cover their nakedness with the mantle of respectability, cost society more than they are worth. They arc virtually purchases of unmerited leniency with money, and tend to break down the moral law just as compounding a felony breaks down the criminal law. It would be well if gifts of ill-gotten wealth were cast back into the teeth of the giver until he gave evidence of repentance and restitution. But, from the nature of the case, a compromising donation almost never meets with such a reception. It is a gift to a particular charity — a babies' fresh-air fund, a newsboys' home, or a rescue mission. The directors of the charity have this work at heart and naturally feel that the Spartan-like rejection of a large and much-needed contribution would be tantamount to engaging in moral sanitation at the expense of the babies or newsboys or Magdalens. Each charity, therefore, is under a strong inducement to stick to its own task, take thankfully whatever money comes to it for its work, and refrain from facing broad questions as to the relation between modes of wealth-getting and the social welfare.

This is the reason why private unendowed charities must, on the whole, be listed among the static rather than the dynamic forces in society. They have every temptation to centre their attention on their own bit of blessed work and to take the world as they find it. Why should they entertain questionings that might oblige them to discriminate between donations? What welcome will they have for ideas which are likely to offend or alarm their donors? Have they not every inducement to regard the class of poor whom they serve, and the class of rich who provide them with the means of serving the poor, as natural and fixed features in the social system? So we have the anomaly that groups of people who have a very wide knowledge of special conditions, and who have acquired precious experience in particular lines of social service, have little to say when projects of social reconstruction are brought upon the carpet. Not only do many of them hold aloof from constructive social reformers, but often they throw cold water on proposed remedies and policies which are in successful operation elsewhere.

There is another and a greater limitation upon private philanthropy. Of late we have dropped the old, simple, soothing explanation of the cause of human misery. Nowadays we know too much about distress to dismiss it as merely the result of unfitness for the struggle for existence. We have learned that people struggle, not in still water, but in an agitated medium full of upcurrents and down-currents; that poor swimmers may be borne up and good swimmers may be carried down. It is twenty years or more since social workers took to investigating seriously the head-waters of the endless flow of miserable people defiling before them. They have traced up the tributaries of this flood, and instead of finding their sources to be individual congenital defects, they have found many of them to be adverse social conditions. This being true, the really big thing to do is not just to handle the current of dependents as it flows past, but to gel at the sources and find a way of plugging them up. Nature cannot be changed. — save by the slow methods of eugenics, — congenital weakness cannot he cured, but an adverse social condition admits of being removed.

Some of these conditions can be removed without disturbing anybody much, unless it be the tax-payer. Such are city congestion, or convivial social customs, or truancy, or lack of recreation facilities. But most of the adverse social conditions are mixed up with some lucrative business, and you cannot go about to abolish them without having a business interest on your back. The social conditions which create down-currents are usually conditions of work or conditions of living — including under this latter, housing, food, and recreation. Now, the caterers to vice who seize upon, pervert, and exploit the instinct of young people for pleasure, have been pretty well outlawed, and there is no danger lest social workers be embarrassed by donations from that quarter.

Few indeed, are the legitimate charities which have been brought under any obligation to the liquor traffic, gambling, the social evil, or the commercialized theatre. Only a few years ago, however, very respectable donors were protesting against raising the question of the housing of the working-class population. Happily, the movement for the betterment of housing is now so far advanced that it has become disgraceful knowingly to draw rentals from rotten and disease-breeding tenement houses. People who covet respectability have bowed to the requirements of the housing laws or else shifted their investments to other kinds of property. This leaves the real fight to centre around the questions of the conditions and pay of labor.

Now, there are few fortunes which do not rest on businesses that are more or less sensitive to such questions. The proposition that the conditions of labor need amendment if we are going to lessen very much the flow of misery and degradation is a terrible shock to the whole policy of reliance on private philanthropy. Few indeed are the administrators of unendowed philanthropies who can advance many steps along this path without barking their shins.

II

In Pennsylvania steel towns the Young Men's Christian Association has been quite inert with respect to any problem of the steel-workers which involves their relations to the company — such as the effects of the seven-day week, the twelve-hour day, the all-night shift, the twenty-four-hour turn every other week, or the preventable work accidents; for the reason that much of the money that runs it comes from the officers and superintendents of the mills.

To be sure, the Association inspires young men to lead a cleaner life, but what in mill towns is this problem compared with the problem of conditions of work? I talked once with an Association secretary about conditions in the West Virginia coal field. In one district where he has a strong work, the company owns 35,000 acres of land, — everything except the right-of-way of the railroad through that district. The moment one leaves the right-of-way, the company may treat him as a trespasser. If an investigator goes there without company authorization he may be treated as a trespasser the moment that he steps from the depot platform; if a labor organizer goes in there, the company can order him out of the house of any employee; a missionary going in there must have a company permit. Moreover, a band of company sluggers, known as 'the wrecking crew,' takes in hand any agitator or organizer who comes in, and beats him up so that he cannot proceed with his purpose.

I asked the Association secretary what he thought of this feudalism. He replied that such a system is necessary under the conditions and that it produces wonderful results. Prostitutes and gamblers are kept out, there are no saloons, liquor can be brought in only on order, and the company allows no liquor wagon to leave a case of beer at any house where lately there has been drunkenness or 'rough-house.' This man was a good man, but he did not consider whether the system was making men or making serfs. He was interested only in whether the millers drank, and how they lived. The only Association secretary who could succeed in that district would be one who took that point, of view, for much of his support came from the company, which was interested in preventing the men from making themselves unfit for their work.

Jump to comments
Presented by
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Sad Desk Lunch: Is This How You Want to Die?

How to avoid working through lunch, and diseases related to social isolation.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more

Video

Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.

Video

What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world

Writers

Up
Down

More in Business

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In