Philanthropic Doubts

Has philanthropy any place, then, in a modern community? The concern of the philanthropist is legitimately with those social responsibilities not yet assumed by all. A group of persons dedicating themselves to the study of existing evils, to the practice of admittedly temporary demonstrations of improved methods for combatting these evils, and to a determination never to shoulder any permanent responsibility for the carrying-out of reforms, has a very important place in society to-day. If such a group of social experimenters has, after a suitable interval of time, failed to per the community of the value of the suggested reforms so that the authorities are ready to adopt them, it should feel no false pride in abandoning the venture. The experiment may have been impracticable; other forces in the community may have been attacking the problem from a more advantageous position; or public sympathy, without which no reform is possible, may have been lacking. In any case the paddle-wheels are beating empty air, and it behooves the reformers to conserve their fuel till the tide comes in. Such an attitude requires a very high order of self-effacement, though one surely not beyond the capacities of true lovers of their kind.

The reluctance of organized societies to surrender their work to the community itself is not always due to an exaggerated sense of the importance of their own contribution, but may be inspired by a very real fear of a consequent lowering of standards. The apprehension is understandable, but it is shortsighted. How many persons who have seriously tried to cooperate with public servants have found them impossible to work with? In some communities there is political corruption of a serious nature. This does not, however, justify turning to private charity as a way out. It might serve the poor and suffering of such a city much better if all the charitable institutions closed their doors and used their time and money to establish and back a good government. In most of our cities the government, though often inefficient and unenlightened, is not corrupt, or beyond the influence of the citizens who have no private axe to grind. The worst failures are due to the fact that, as soon as the officials are elected, the public forgets all about them and leaves them to the companionship of the few who come to abuse and the many who come to get some favor for themselves or their friends. Public servants can hardly credit their senses when citizens come with a desire to back them in doing a difficult task, or to help them in their efforts to carry on their work efficiently. Citizens have no one except themselves to thank if an official, left to the mercies of the self-seeking, becomes careless in self-defense or corrupt through evil associations.

Think of the daily battle the officers of a board of health have to fight! They are the bane of every vicious element in a city, the enemy of every man who wishes to break the sanitary laws. Every dishonest landlord, every filthy tenant hates them. They are hounded by peddlers who wish to be exceptions to the law; by the dealers who prefer to leave their trash on the sidewalk; by butchers who are unwilling to screen their premises; by stable-keepers who refuse to remove manure; by irate parents who see no sense in quarantine; by the gentry who spit on the sidewalk; and by lodging-house keepers who do not think eight sleeping in a hall bedroom excessive. The law-abiding citizens leave the board of health alone.

Is it any wonder that the officials feel that the hand of man is against them, and sometimes weaken in playing such a losing game? If only the people could realize that the board of health is their creation, trying in the face of mountainous difficulties to carry out their orders and make the community a place of safety for them and their children, they might feel a share in the responsibilities, a pride in the achievements, and a sense of personal failure in the mistakes. Real contact on the part of citizens with governmental problems often brings home the fact that the defects which loom large are due to a lack of money, of public backing, and of legal authority — circumstances beyond the control of the official, but within the power of his employer, the public.

The high standards of our heavily endowed and well-managed philanthropies may be beyond our station in life. A democracy has to surrender a certain perfection of efficiency. We deplore it, though we know the compensations are great. We make our mistakes, but we learn from our failures and develop a power that would be withheld from us if we were perpetually guarded from error by superior intelligences.

The taking over by towns and states of the responsibility for the care and prevention of tuberculosis, a work ably initiated all over the country by the anti-tuberculosis associations, undoubtedly meant in some places an inferior quality in the treatment given; but the comprehensiveness of the work that is being done and the promise that the activity throughout the country makes for an eventual control of the dread disease, is something no private organization, however efficient and ably run, could have hoped to attain. Yet anti-tuberculosis associations continue to exist, refusing to recognize that their pioneer work is done and that their outposts should be moved further on.

Legal aid societies have figured as charities since their inception. Only recently a profoundly significant change of attitude has begun to show itself in the minds of those cognizant of the flaws in the relation between justice and the poor. Legal advice for those with small means is being accepted as a part of the public administration of justice, a responsibility of the people as a whole, not a benefit conferred by the rich on their less fortunate fellows. The very fact that the impecunious client becomes a part of the system itself brings him the assistance of the public agencies of our juridical machinery, which are not so readily available to the private organization. The needs of the litigant become of primary concern to those responsible both for protecting his rights and for enforcing the decrees of the law-makers.

In the educational world the kindergartens have passed through somewhat the same cycle. They were begun as an experiment, by private enthusiasts, then given a grudging hospitality by our public-school system, and finally accepted in their entirety as an essential part of the educational course in all progressive communities. And yet occasional settlement houses have maintained kindergartens close to those of adjacent schools, on the ground that the school was crowded or the teachers not so skilled as their own. Did the idea of lending an extra room for the use of the public school, or bringing community pressure to bear to increase school equipment and to improve the quality of the teachers, lie beyond the range of possibilities in the minds of these settlement directors? Such institutions have kept up their old routine, instead of using their freedom to try new ways of bringing light into dark places. The amount of public money available for experiments is always small. The taxpayer is perhaps justifiably reluctant to have his money used for purposes which may prove to be utopian; so that many promising but untried methods must wait on the generosity and initiative of private enthusiasts for their testing out. This makes the plodding work of an institution which accepts itself as a fixed part of the social universe so deeply disappointing.

The Workmen's Compensation acts can hardly be said to be the result of an enlightened refusal on the part of the private charities to bear the burden of the tragedies of industry, but they lifted from the philanthropic agencies burdens which the industry should itself bear. The acts suddenly made the problem distinct. They drew the attention of the industries to the cost of accidents, which had been previously borne by the families of the victims and the philanthropies of the community, and had now become a heavy drag on the profits of production. The expense was quickly recognized as excessive, and intelligent efforts were made to reduce it. The most spectacular effect has been the greatly increased demand. for safety appliances, medical and nursing care in factories, and a final and perhaps determining pressure for the prohibition amendment. The philanthropist might have gone on indefinitely carrying the load; but when the responsibility for faulty industrial conditions was thrown on the community, at large, through additional cost of the products of industry, something fundamental took place.

The Mothers' Pension acts have had a similar history. They have removed a crushing weight from the shoulders of women with young children, and placed it on the shoulders of the tax-payers. The tax-payers, however, perform a double function. They not only provide money for the pensions, but make and enforce the laws as well. They have not been content with doling out groceries and paying rent, but have made new laws about deserting husbands, and have stimulated the activity of the courts and the extraditing agents to return these evaders to the bearing of their responsibilities. In our capacity as the governing body in a democracy, we go far beyond any individual's ability to achieve. We become supermen, and can accomplish the seemingly impossible.

Education used to be regarded as a philanthropy. Charitable schools cast their turbid shadow on mid-Victorian literature. It was a form of charity which was withheld as far as possible from the working classes, lest it make them restless and dissatisfied, and was given out only in quantities which were expected to add to the usefulness but not to the ambition of the lower ranks of society. Democracy has discredited education as a philanthropy, and recognized it as the right of every potential citizen, the only insurance against the anarchy of ignorance, and the sole safeguard of the institutions of a free people.

The public schools offer to all the children of the Republic the opportunity to prepare for citizenship together — the rich and the poor, those with long traditions of culture and those with long traditions of toil — in the atmosphere and under the inspiration of the community institution. If the schools as they exist to-day are not good enough for one man's children, they are not good enough for any man's children, and the enlightened lover of his kind must throw the money, interest, and enthusiasm he may be putting into the private schools into the public. Whatever improvement he can there achieve will better the education of hundreds of children instead of tens, and will not lapse with the passing of his interest. Citizens interested in education, who devote themselves to the building up of private and parochial schools, have not been touched by the Americanization movement and have never fundamentally grasped the American idea. The place for them to help is in the school-system itself, where the problem is acute, the laboratory prepared, and where an outside intelligent interest is of value in keeping alive the professional enthusiasm which may be repressed by the insistent demands of the daily duty. No money can return larger dividends in real accomplishment than that added to the budget of our public schools; nor can any community interest more certainly strengthen the best elements in our civilization than that devoted to the improvement of the public education.


What is our moral responsibility to our brothers, fortunate and unfortunate alike? If we give the best education we can to every citizen, if we keep the community health at the highest possible level, and provide ample opportunities for innocent pleasure; if we strengthen the churches and safeguard working conditions in our industries; if we provide the most favorable environment that lies within our powers cannot we trust the individual to work out his own destiny? Even those social workers who devote most time and attention to work with the individual find that the problem of human difficulty is largely one of faulty character. Is not the remedying of that defect beyond the power as well as the province of any self-constituted group in the community? Must we not leave those changes to the interplay of the influences of a man's family, church, friends teachers, and fellow workmen, in an environment as wholesome for all of us as our united efforts can make it? The new keeper of his brother is the man who looks to bettering his home town, not to giving his old coat to the beggar. At the Judgment Seat we may be asked, 'What did you do to improve your city government?' and not be allowed to introduce evidence as to our distribution of the scraps from our table. Our task is, not buttressing the weaknesses of our fellows with our strength, but organizing the energies of man to reconstruct his world.

The dream of our people is the coming in of true democracy. Dreaming does not bring the realization nearer. In the organization of human society the pronouncement, 'Let there be peace,' is of no value unless it is accompanied by some concrete suggestion as to how this desirable end may be attained. The philanthropist's contribution must be experimental work on happier methods of living together. There is no particular dignity or virtue in giving money to a soup-kitchen or in giving clothes to the children of the unemployed. But there is a tonic in working in one's home, one's business, and one's community to prevent unemployment.

The genius of the American people is never going to allow itself to be daunted by such a problem. A nation that could devise the traction plough, tame the wilderness, and build the Panama Canal has inventive ability enough to make continuous mutual service a possibility. Each man's work means every other man's additional comfort and leisure. The problem of uninterrupted employment is surely no more occult than the problems of organization and distribution that our great corporations have successfully wrestled with. But so long as we placate our intelligence and pacify our consciences by our philanthropies, we put off the day of attack on the sources of poverty and distress.

The game of democracy cannot be played from the grand stand. The humanitarian finds it fatally easy to sit on the side-lines and criticize. He may be willing to sponge the combatants' faces and run no risk of getting dirt on his clothes, but to play the people's game, he must get into the ring and be willing to take knockout blows and still come back. The only place where the game can be played is within the organizations of our towns, our counties, our states, and our nation. And the only way it can be played is by citizens' fighting together as fellow sufferers against the forces of corruption and destruction that lie in wait for us.

The social workers, the professionals of the philanthropic movement, are themselves becoming weary of their dependence on the uncertain generosity of the patrons of the poor. Many of them, especially the more thoughtful, have felt an inner skepticism as to the fundamental character of their work, even while they have developed a technique which they feel is their real contribution to the solution of the social riddle. The primary interest of the best of them is not so much that of keeping their own particular institutions alive, as of animating the community as a whole with the spirit they have developed, and transferring to the public agencies the methods worked out by years of experiment in private enterprises.

The community organizations deal with masses; and, as masses are simply the sum-total of individuals, the perfection of the result depends on the intelligence with which each dependent's difficulty is treated. To carry over into public work the professional ability, the intellectual enthusiasm, and the discriminating judgment that have characterized the activities of the best social workers, is a responsibility of the philanthropists who pay their taxes but who have ceased giving to private charities. The passing of laws alone will never bring in the millennium; the establishment of public commissions to do the work the private groups are now doing is not enough. We must feel a responsibility, as individuals and as a nation, for the organizations we share in common. We can afford to give over into public control our private institutions for the service of our fellow men, if we continue to exercise the same energy that we have devoted to them in cultivating the social outlook of our public officers and in increasing the scientific and humanitarian character of our community institutions.

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