Schambra – Charity, Progressive Philanthropy, and Eugenics
Progressive Philanthropy, and Eugenics
William A. Schambra
Hudson Institute’s Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal
Philadelphia Society Regional Meeting
October 8, 2005
We meet today less than five miles from the charity I
regard as the north star of all my thoughts on the topic of philanthropy,
namely, Cordelia Taylor’s Family House. Mrs.
Taylor is a nursing home administrator who had become disenchanted with the
bureaucratic and inhumane procedures of the large facilities where she had been
working. So she undertook to open
her own community-based senior care facility, located in the house on 11th
Street where she had raised her family. The
neighborhood had deteriorated badly since then, but that made it the ideal place
to provide services for the low-income and no-income seniors who were closest to
her heart. The demand was such that
she soon expanded to the house next door, then to another and another, until
Family House included most of the block. Today,
the houses are connected by a wooden ramp, surrounding a pleasant garden with a
fountain in the middle. Several
plots are set aside for raising vegetables and flowers, raised so that even
wheel-chair bound residents can still get their hands into the soil.
For many of the impoverished residents who pass their last days here, it
is the nicest place they will ever have lived.
Mrs. Taylor has earned her share of plaudits for her work.
Readers’ Digest featured Family House in one of its issues; Oprah
has had her on the show; and The Today
Show’s Al Roker stopped in with his cameras and a truckload of gifts.
And yet for all her incredible work, for all the recognition she has
earned, she has been unable to attract support from any of the nation’s larger
foundations. How can that be?
Such is the enduring legacy of progressivism for American
philanthropy. Just as our first
large foundations — Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Russell Sage — were being
created around the turn of the twentieth century, that era’s progressive
movement pointed the way to a bold, hopeful human future through the application
of the newly developing social sciences to human problems.
By investing in the development and applications of these sciences,
foundations would now be able to delve down to the “root causes” of
problems, rather than merely treating the symptoms.
As John D. Rockefeller put it, “the best philanthropy is constantly in
search for finalities — a search for cause, an attempt to cure the evils at
their source.” Indeed, the
distinction between addressing root cause and mere symptom became synonymous
with the distinction between philanthropy and charity, with the word
“charity” now uttered in a tone of slightly bemused contempt.
And so it was that these first foundations — and most
large foundations since — came to pour resources into the development and
deployment of social sciences like economics, psychology, sociology, and public
administration. They shaped the
first major American research universities at Johns Hopkins and Chicago, as well
as public policy research institutes like Brookings and the National Bureau of
Economic Research, and coordinating bodies like the Social Science Research
Council. Tocqueville’s old idea
that America was ennobled by everyday citizens stepping forward to solve their
own problems had to give way to a new view of public life, now securely in the
hands of objective, nonpartisan professionals and experts, who alone could grasp
and manage efficiently the complexities of modern industrial life.
Foundation funding would pave the way for this transfer of authority:
as one Rockefeller mission statement put it, its funding was designed to
“increase the body of knowledge which in the hands of competent social
technicians may be expected in time to result in substantial social control.”
Centralized social control in the hands of social technicians required an
effort to circumvent and diminish local ethnic, fraternal, and neighborhood
groups, which still took their bearings from benighted religion, rather than
from the new sciences of society.
One new science seemed to the progressives to be
particularly promising: the science of eugenics.
Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and his son “Junior” were
persuaded that, just as tracking physiological diseases back to germs had begun
to eliminate root causes of medical ailments, so tracking social pathology —
crime, pauperism, dypsomania, and moral laxity — back to defective genes would
allow us to attack it at its roots. If,
as seemed clear, feeblemindedness was the heritable source of most social
dysfunction, then the solution was equally clear: confine and where possible
sterilize the unfit. Junior had
come to realize the importance of permanently confining promiscuous women after
service on a special grand jury investigating prostitution in New York in 1910.
This was the only “scientific way of escape from the evils which our
courts are intended to correct but in reality only increase.” From
the perspective of philanthropic eugenics, the old practice of charity — that
is, simply alleviating human suffering — was not only inefficient, it was
downright dangerous. As birth
control heroine Margaret Sanger put it, America’s charitable institutions are
the “surest signs that our civilization has bred, is breeding, and is
perpetuating constantly increasing numbers of defectives, delinquents, and
Quintessentially progressive Wisconsin was no slouch in the
implementation of eugenics. As
Daniel Kevles’s history In the Name of
Eugenics noted, the force behind the sterilization movement here was Albert
Wilmarth, superintendent of the Home for the Feebleminded.
He readily enlisted the state medical society and leading
scholars at the University of Wisconsin in his crusade, most notably Edward A.
Ross, perhaps the nation’s leading sociologist.
University president and prominent progressive Charles Van
Hise maintained, “We know enough about eugenics so that if the knowledge were
applied, the defective classes would disappear within a generation.”
The problem of defective genes, of course, was compounded
at the time by the fact that literally boatloads of the allegedly genetically
inferior were arriving daily on America’s shores.
As Junior noted in a sophomore essay at Brown in 1894, the
new immigrants were “decidedly of the
wrong class. They are chiefly the
scum of foreign cities; the vagabond, the tramp, the pauper, and the indolent .
. . ignorant and hardly better than beasts.”
While his biographers assure us that this was a youthful indiscretion, he
and Carnegie would go on to fund the Eugenics Record Office at New
York’s Cold Spring Harbor. Its
director, Charles Davenport, lent scientific weight to Junior’s enthusiasms,
warning that the new blood coming from Southeastern Europe would make the
American population “darker in pigmentation, smaller in stature, more
mercurial . . . more given to crimes of larceny, kidnapping, assault, murder,
rape and sex-immorality.” Rockefeller money would later go toward research
institutions in Germany that were also seeking ways to discourage the
propagation of inferior races. By
the time Cold Spring Harbor’s eugenics program ended in the late 30s,
immigration had been severely curtailed, tens of thousands of “defectives”
in America had been institutionalized or sterilized, and the ground had been
laid for the most unspeakable horrors of the 20th century.
The deep affinity between progressive, “root causes”
philanthropy and eugenics has long since been expunged from the historical
record, of course, like Junior’s sophomore scribblings. Turn to any standard
history or biography in the field of philanthropy, turn to the index, look under
“E,” and I can more or less guarantee that you will find no reference to
eugenics. But the initial biases of
progressivism, if perhaps not eugenics, are still very much apparent in the
attitudes of contemporary philanthropy: the
insistence on funding social science-based enterprises along with a hesitancy to
fund faith-based institutions; the preference for the trained professional over
the amateur; the denigration of local, parochial civic groups in the name of the
centralized social technician; and, of course, a determination to attack the
root causes of problems rather than simply to ameliorate them.
The most advanced foundations barely consider unsolicited requests for
funding. Rather, they design their
own programs based on the latest academic expertise, closely monitor and provide
expert counsel to the nonprofits they select to carry them out, and measure the
results using the latest social science evaluation techniques.
This reliance on expertise, plus the fact that, unlike business and
government, foundations are beholden to no one, leads them to claim that they
are peculiarly able to discern the public interest in a nonpartisan, objective
fashion. All of these attitudes and
practices are, of course, reflections of modern philanthropy’s progressive
They also mean that the Cordelia Taylors of the world need
not apply. Mrs. Taylor is not
attacking the root causes of poverty among the elderly, but rather providing
comfort and care in the final hours of the lives of the poor.
She is not trying out some new social science approach to
senior care, just seeing to it that no one dies alone and unwanted. Though
she herself is technically trained, she makes clear that her mission and her
strength flow from God. Other than
a handful of nurses, most of her employees are local mothers just off the
welfare roles, not trained experts. For
all the good she done on this earth, Cordelia Taylor’s Family House cannot
hope for a dime from America’s largest foundations.
But Mrs. Taylor has
been funded generously and proudly by Milwaukee’s Lynde and Harry Bradley
Foundation, where I served for over ten years.
That may surprise some of you, who know the foundation chiefly as a
leading funder of the American conservative intellectual infrastructure.
But it underlines a fundamental operating principle at Bradley.
The public policy ideas for which it is best known are not abstract
conceptions or experimental hunches. Rather,
they have been shaped by working with and learning from worthwhile institutions
and neighborhood leaders in Bradley’s own Milwaukee backyard.
We came to work with Mrs. Taylor, for instance, because for us she
embodied Bob Woodson’s conviction that the real experts in social policy are
found not in the universities, but in the neighborhoods, where families, houses
of faith, voluntary associations and other “mediating structures”
effectively meet human needs. Our
experience with her and other outstanding neighborhood leaders led us to
formulate and fund an agenda for “new citizenship,” seeking to promote the
revitalization of the “small platoons” of society, including especially
faith-based institutions. It is not
too much to say that President Bush’s original notion of compassionate
conservatism owes a great deal to the exemplary charities and the sympathetic
scholars Bradley funded throughout the 1990s.
Similarly with school choice:
Bradley supported it not because it seemed like a good idea
in the abstract, but more important because we had practical, concrete
relationships with the schools, pupils, and parents in Milwaukee who stood to
benefit from school choice, foremost among the schools being Brother Bob
Smith’s splendid Messmer High School, just a few miles north.
And when Bradley supported welfare reform, it funded not only the
scholarship behind the concept, but also local training and job placement
agencies like the late Bill Lock’s Community Enterprises of Greater Milwaukee,
which would be on the front lines of implementing reform, as well as safety net
programs like the Milwaukee Rescue Mission.
Surely the success of these programs owes a great deal to
the fact that the foundation stands face-to-face with their consequences.
They arise from and reflect the wisdom and counsel of Bradley’s network
of trusted local leaders, most of whom live within a ten-minute drive of
foundation headquarters. There is
no walking away from the outcomes.
They involve Bradley’s friends and neighbors.
By contrast, progressive “root causes” philanthropy
insists that we move as quickly as we can past the surface of human
relationship, in order to reach the underlying, abstract forces that truly shape
human affairs. In our pursuit of
the remote and invisible, the immediate and visible can only distract us.
Scientific rigor should not be compromised by sentimental
So it is that the pursuit of root causes starts us down the
road that leads to eugenics. Once
we have steeled ourselves to look past the sufferer directly before us in order
to track down the ultimate source of suffering, we have detached ourselves from
the human consequences of our philanthropy.
It becomes too easy to conclude that the most merciful way to alleviate
suffering is to prevent anyone from becoming a sufferer, by any means necessary.
We become vulnerable to
British socialist Havelock Ellis’s argument that “the superficially
sympathetic man flings a coin to the beggar; the more deeply sympathetic man
builds an almshouse for him; but perhaps the most radically sympathetic of all
is the man who arranges that the beggar shall not be born.”
In the face of modern philanthropy’s scorn for the idea
of charity, our experience with eugenics suggests rather the indispensability of
charity — of loving care for our neighbor who suffers.
Without a secure grounding in charity, philanthropy all too readily
transmutes itself into misanthropy. To
prevent that, every foundation, every individual donor, should befriend, fund,
trust, and listen to the sage counsel of their own Cordelia Taylors.
With a Mrs. Taylor in mind, the donor should ask, how are my gifts
helping or hindering her work? Progressivism
explicitly sought to transcend such petty, particularistic allegiances.
We must seek to reestablish and honor those allegiances. Otherwise,
as we enter an age of unfettered genetic manipulation, our philanthropy may well
take us again down the road of eugenics. It
is more urgent than ever for us to realize that, in order to work good rather
than ill, even the largest philanthropy must have charity at its heart.