Martin Morse Wooster’s most recent undertaking, Return to Charity? Philanthropy and the Welfare State, complements his already substantial contributions to the maturing literature of modern philanthropy. The monograph is a brief intellectual history that shows how the welfare state in theory and practice was strengthened systematically by post-Victorian social reformers through the concept of “the New Charity.”
Rather than helping the poor directly, the reformers advocated social engineering to eradicate poverty altogether. In Wooster’s words, “Victorian poverty-fighters were obsessed with the idea that aid only go to the ‘deserving poor’. . . Advocates of the new charity answered that the best way to help the deserving poor was to fight, not poverty itself, but the causes of poverty.”
Wooster catalogues the individuals who epitomized the New Charity, and scrutinizes the activities of the Russell Sage Foundation and the ideas of Mary Richmond, the first head of its Charity Organization Division.
Richmond’s efforts exemplified the New Charity social work mentality that is pervasive today. Her writings during a long career from the turn of the century to the 1920s show how the concept of virtue was drained out of charity even as philanthropy and social work were politicized. The moralistic beliefs and practices of the Victorian crusader surrendered to the scientific approach of the social work professional. Poverty was no longer surmountable with temporary assistance to families struggling to better themselves through personal initiative. Instead, private and public resources were to be brought to bear through government and specialized professions for generic public purposes.
Wooster shows how the New Charity movement and the New Deal were bolstered by the development of modern fundraising during and after World War I. Unfortunately, national fundraising campaigns had the unintended consequence of reorienting charity and philanthropy away from the local milieu in which they were traditionally practiced. National agencies began to supplant local organizations, and professional fundraising firms began to act as middlemen for nonprofits.
Wooster also surveys the pertinent literature and shows that little intellectual attention was paid to private philanthropy between World War II and the 1980s. In this vein, his discussion of Richard Cornuelle’s efforts are the most valuable part of the book. Cornuelle is truly “the lost leader of compassionate conservatism,” and the comprehensive ap-proach to the private, voluntary provision of social services outlined in his pioneering 1965 book, Reclaiming the American Dream, still rings true today.
Cornuelle’s main arguments are economic. He shows that activist government has become the unfair competitor of the independent sector for the provision of public service and welfare and tackles head-on the New Charity/welfare-statist view that public problems are too extensive to be solved with private resources. He argues that private philanthropy can compete with government, and the vitality and innovativeness of private, voluntary efforts will solve problems more compassionately and competently.
Although he clearly favors a neo-Victorian approach to charity and philanthropy, Wooster makes no concrete assertions about the future, concluding with a review of contemporary policy reform recommendations. Unfortunately, the alternatives are invariably government-centered, focusing on manipulating tax rates, redistributing entitlements, and creating new quasi-government agencies for regulating charitable organizations and initiatives.
Return to Charity? reminds us of the power of intellect. Mary Richmond and her New Charity acolytes, along with professional fundraisers and New Deal politicians, turned the world upside down by legitimating and institutionalizing the modern welfare state in America. Advocates of private philanthropy and the free enterprise system of which they are an integral part have now spent close to a century in the wilderness. By recovering the capital of their intellectual forbearers, they may just have the opportunity to turn the world right-side up again in the next century.
Carl Helstrom is senior program officer at the JM Foundation in New York City.