“The focus of this wonderful foundation on the root causes of social ills is very powerful and very compelling,” former University of Pennsylvania president Judith Rodin told the Chronicle of Philanthropy after she was named the new president of the $3 billion Rockefeller Foundation. So begins the next chapter in the history of the foundation that first launched philanthropy’s search for “root causes” a century ago.
Curiously, the same philanthropic establishment that insists on evaluations of the smallest grant has yet to ask itself, “After 100 years of chasing ‘root causes,’ what do we have to show for it?” John D. Rockefeller himself got the root causes bandwagon rolling in the 1890s by pronouncing that “the best philanthropy is constantly in search for finalities—a search for cause, an attempt to cure the evils at their source.” In this view, the old, discredited approach called “charity” only treats the symptoms of social problems, whereas genuinely scientific philanthropy, armed with new social sciences like economics, sociology, and psychology, could reach the source of ills and finally cure them. And so the first foundations—Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Russell Sage—invested massively in (1) scholars and research institutions searching for the root cause of social dysfunction and (2) trained service professionals to apply the new sciences. This approach had proven reasonably effective in the realm of health; the Rockefeller Sanitary Commission for the Eradication of Hookworm Disease, for instance, had had success. But when applied to social problems, the search for root causes led down a dark path.
One of the first major philanthropic enthusiasms of the twentieth century was the cutting-edge “science” of eugenics, which sought “more children from the fit, less from the unfit.” Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and his son were persuaded that, just as tracking physiological diseases back to germs could eliminate the root causes of medical ailments, so tracking social misbehavior back to defective genes would allow us to attack it at its roots, by confining and sterilizing the “unfit.” Thus, after serving on a special grand jury investigating prostitution in New York in 1910, John D. Rockefeller Jr. funded a Criminalistic Institute to examine and recommend appropriate treatment for arrested women. Any woman found “mentally deficient and incapable of reform” would be institutionalized indefinitely, to keep her from “perpetuating her kind.” According to Rockefeller, this was the only “scientific way of escape from the evils which our courts are intended to correct but in reality only increase.” Advising Rockefeller in this venture was Charles Davenport, director of the Carnegie-funded Station for Experimental Evolution. As Edwin Black put it in War Against the Weak, Davenport hoped to use foundation dollars to “craft a superior race of Nordics.” He aimed to “build a wall high enough around this country as to keep out these cheaper races,” so that “our descendants” need not “abandon the country to the blacks, browns, and yellows and seek an asylum in New Zealand.”
Rockefeller money also went to research institutions in Germany that sought to discourage the propagation of inferior races. By the time the Station for Experimental Evolution’s eugenics program ended in the late 1930s, 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 twentieth century.
If funding eugenics was the great sin of commission for twentieth century scientific philanthropy, a serious sin of omission followed World War II. The massive new Ford Foundation poured millions into what it termed the “behavioral sciences,” based on the “application of the principles of scientific method to the study of human behavior.” This expertise, added to Rockefeller’s long support of international studies, should have spotted the major postwar threat to American security: the rise of communism in Asia. Instead, as historian Tang Tsou points out in America’s Failure in China, scholars were so enthralled by “the meticulous verification of factual propositions or the construction of scientific theories on the model of the social sciences” that they “relinquished their traditional role as interpreters of the meaning of political developments.”
Well-funded experts believed they could understand the “root causes” of politics solely by observing its “facts”—groups, processes, and behavior. Statements about “values” were no longer taken seriously, and so scholars ignored Chinese communists’ “value statements” about their violent Marxism. Observing only behavior, scholars discerned nothing more threatening than the maneuverings of a typical interest group agitated by agrarian discontent. After China was “lost” to Mao, British scholar Bernard Crick observed dryly, “Whittaker Chambers, in his too much maligned book Witness, showed an understanding of communism more profound and subtle than any American political scientist had done.” The U.S. Congress might be forgiven for suggesting, as it did in the Cox and Reece Committee investigations of foundations in the early 1950s, that the nation had been ill-served by tax-exempt scholars who had so conspicuously failed to understand one of the century’s most dangerous developments.
Root Causes, Version 2
By the early 1960s, American philanthropy switched to a whole new understanding of “root causes.” According to the new theory, social ills result less from the problems of individuals than from social-service systems that are insufficiently responsive to the poor. Therefore, the key to attacking problems at their roots requires not social-science therapy for individuals but political mobilization of groups, who then demand they be given more and better social services. This new understanding lay behind the Ford Foundation’s support of Mobilization For Youth (MFY) on New York’s Lower East Side, which became the model for the War on Poverty’s community action program. “The underlying issues are really political. Thus the problems of the poor require political action, and political action requires power,” wrote MFY organizers George Brager and Harry Specht in 1967. Because “institutional arrangements such as public assistance, state prisons, state mental hospitals, and slum schools are regarded by many as problems in their own right,” argued Specht and Francis Purcell, the poor should be politically organized to pressure social-service providers into greater responsiveness. In addition, money from foundations and the feds should be arranged to provide incentives for services to become more collaborative and responsive. The aim was a “reorganization of services to procure rational, planned collaboration,” one MFY theorist explained. Ironically, the social services that earlier philanthropists thought were the best way to attack the root causes of social ills had now become the root causes.
This new approach provoked powerful resistance. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan documented in Maximum Feasible Misunderstanding, the mobilization of angry demonstrators against local government agencies triggered an equally angry backlash, which brought federal support for that part of the anti-poverty program to a quick end. Similarly, wealthy individuals and foundations supporting direct action found themselves in a quandary. As Nick Kotz points out in his biography of 1960s activist George Wiley, heiress Marion Ascoli funded Wiley, though mildly perturbed that so many of his demonstrations targeted Sears Roebuck, the store her father had founded. The Rockefeller Brothers Fund also supported Wiley, though he had been jailed for demonstrating against board member David Rockefeller’s Chase Manhattan Bank. But when Wiley flooded a New York welfare office with pickets the day the Ford Foundation’s board was considering a substantial grant to him, even they were compelled to say “enough.”
On the other hand, the idea that the root causes of social ills can only be reached by the “rational, planned collaboration” of services remains to this day a staple of contemporary “scientific” philanthropy. In 1988, for instance, the Annie E. Casey Foundation concluded that “at-risk youth” are “served ineffectively by multiple systems of service delivery” and the solution lay in “fundamental and deep changes in existing institutions and systems.” Five years and $50 million later, Casey’s efforts had neither dented the problems, nor secured much collaboration. “Vested interests in current practice, fiscal constraints, and political risks created a constant force capable of minimizing social change,” the foundation admitted.
The Edna McConnell Clark Foundation had long pursued a similar agenda, trying to cultivate collaboration among the “great delivery systems of public service.” When Michael Bailin took the foundation’s reins in 1996, however, he saw that even with a budget of $20 million per year, Clark had accomplished little. After all, he noted in a recent lecture, the social services are “fortified by all the ramparts of bureaucracy and regulation, and thickets of intergovernmental agreements and contracts, and moats of public dollars. We were fighting battles that had tested the power and wealth of serial U.S. Congresses and presidencies.” Though few foundations have been as honest as Casey and Clark, the fact is that tackling “root causes” by trying to induce coordination among traditionally uncoordinated agencies proves to be expensive and futile.
Root Causes, Version 3
But advanced thinking at the largest foundations has moved on to yet another explanation of the root causes of social ills. The latest theory—advanced by projects with funding from the Ford, Rockefeller, Casey, Charles S. Mott, Open Society, and Tides foundations—is that the real root of social dysfunction lies in “structural racism,” deeply and subtly embedded in every aspect of American life. As a report to the Annie E. Casey Foundation put it in 2003, structural racism is “manifest across various systems . . . including education (through standardized testing, discipline and expulsion rates, per pupil expenditures and tracking), housing (through affordability, availability, homeownership rates, discrimination in lending), and criminal justice (through the ‘war on drugs,’ racial profiling, access to adequate legal representation, sentencing disparities, and disparate incarceration rates).”
Earlier “root cause” approaches to social problems are now seen as merely palliative measures. The Western States Center (funded by Carnegie, Ford, and Mott, among others) insists, “It is not enough to work for reforms and policy initiatives that may positively impact people of color or move forward racial justice if we are not explicit about racism as a root cause of the problem . . . . Ultimately, if we are not educating and advocating for people and institutions to think in anti-racist ways, then we are NOT addressing the root causes” (emphasis in the original).
Funders inspired by this approach busy themselves with myriad projects in education, criminal justice, housing, and immigration. Actually, they are bankrolling radical disaffection from, if not rage against, America as such. This became apparent at the U.N. World Conference Against Racism held in Durban, South Africa, in September 2001. Scores of American nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were proudly funded by Ford and other foundations to prepare for and attend the gathering. The most spectacular philanthropic outcome of Durban was the Ford Foundation’s hasty withdrawal of support from several anti-Semitic Palestinian NGOs that had joined in the outpouring of vitriol against Israel, Europe, and the United States. (The abuse was so extreme that our first African-American Secretary of State withdrew the American delegation in mid-conference.)
American NGOs, stoked by the passions of the structural racism argument, avidly joined in the abuse. Rinku Sen of the Applied Research Center (supporters include Ford, C.S. Mott, Casey, and Kellogg) charged that the system of “white privilege” was unshaken in America, with the result that minorities, migrants, and refugees “are increasingly victims of violence and repression by the state,” which operates from a “framework of white supremacy and racism.” When the demand for reparations was raised at Durban, Linda Burnham told the Ford-funded Women of Color Resource Center, “America, fattened on the land, lives, and liberty of conquered nations and enslaved peoples, said no . . . . It was willful, shameful denial of the past in the service of preserving racist, profoundly unequal relations.” Writing for the Poverty and Race Research Action Council (funded by Rockefeller, Ford, Kellogg, C.S. Mott, and Tides, among others), Eric Mann praised Durban for demonstrating that “in any arena in which the struggle against racism and colonial domination is taken seriously, the U.S. empire . . . self-nominates as the main cause of organized racism and national oppression in the world.” The movement for reparations, he notes, “will be driven by years or even decades of a ‘crimes against humanity’ tribunal, with European and U.S. imperialist civilization on trial.” The resulting campaign would “challenge the very legitimacy of the U.S. to exist as a nation-state, and call into question its settler state history of genocide against both Indigenous peoples and Blacks.”
These same NGOs see the war on terrorism—which began days after the Durban conference—not as a legitimate response to a national threat, but as just another pretext for white supremacists to suppress anti-racist movements. Notes Eric Mann, “Right-wing forces in both parties have seized upon the September 11 events as a pretense for accelerating a pre-existing plan to escalate U.S. world domination.” For Linda Burnham, September 11 means the “dream of endless greed, aggression and world dominance has been revealed for the appalling nightmare it always was. The fortress has been breached. And it will be breached again and again as long as we have a hand in feeding the desperation, alienation, and disillusionment that stoke the myriad forms of murderous male rage.” If structural racism is the root of social ills, then as these NGOs and their funders seem to suggest, we should expect—indeed, we deserve—what we got on September 11.
Why “Root Cause” Philanthropy Fails
Each new philanthropic quest for root causes over the past century has begun on a self-assured, optimistic note. We seem not to notice that, with each fresh start, what was yesterday’s cutting-edge, scientific, root-causes philanthropy has become, in the eyes of the same “advanced” group, today’s pathetic, merely palliative charity. Philanthropy never quite transforms itself into a power that can magically cure social ills, and the quest for root causes wanders on, no end in sight.
Why such unpleasant failures? Because a philanthropy enthralled with root causes sees individuals as unimportant, passive playthings of social, political, or biological forces which rule humanity and can only be understood and managed by experts. Yet the American way of life is grounded in the opposite view: each individual, no matter how affected by “defective” genes, or poor services, or racial identity, is responsible for his or her own behavior and endowed with certain unalienable rights. Consequently, our political system disperses political power so that the sovereign individual is less liable to elite manipulation.
The American allegiance to equal individual rights frustrates “scientific,” root-causes reformers. Eugenicist Charles Davenport, for instance, believed the illusion of “equality before the law is cruelty and injustice” because it hindered his efforts to dry up the pool of bad genes. He wished we could change our motto to “all men are born unequal.”
Root-causers treat individual responsibility as a delusion, but sooner or later proud citizens stand up to manipulative professionals. Free Americans insist that no one be treated as a “defective,” that Marxist totalitarianism is not to be measured but resisted, that the liberty protected by dispersed political power outweighs efficient delivery of services, and that racism does not diminish individual opportunity so much that we deserve terrorist attacks.
Eager to find the root causes of social ills, philanthropy forgets that it operates within a political framework which insists that individual dignity and personal responsibility are paramount. That’s the root cause of the problem of root causes.
William A. Schambra is director of the Hudson Institute's Bradley Center on Philanthropy and Civic Renewal. Krista Shaffer, research assistant, contributed to this article.