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The State of our Union in Crisis: Widening the Lens of Children and Families

Resource type: Speech

Gara LaMarche |

Keynote speech by Gara LaMarche, President and CEO, The Atlantic Philanthropies, given at the Annual Conference of Grantmakers for Children, Youth and Families at the Drake Hotel in Chicago, Illinois. 

This is an extraordinary moment to gather and reflect, as we have planned to do in these few days, on how our society best protects the endangered rights, meets the mounting needs, and advances the fragile opportunities of every family — most particularly, for the children who depend on them, and on all of us. In twenty days, Americans will go to the polls to make their choices in one of the most consequential Presidential elections of the last century. At the same time, we reel daily from the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression. No analyst or pundit can predict with authority when will it end or how deep it will cut. Much that those of us in this room do each day, not only in our professional but also our personal lives, will be affected. This is not the time, obviously, for standard bromides about philanthropy and social policy.

So let me begin on a blunt note. Whatever the outcome of the Presidential election, where myriad factors are at play, and whatever the path of the crisis we are experiencing, the dominant ideologies of the last thirty years are surely bankrupt. The notion – well, much more than a notion, for many an article of faith, what my former boss George Soros calls “market fundamentalism” – that the free market is the answer to everything, has been upended, with the Treasury’s stake in America’s banks amounting to nearly as much as the total of charitable giving in the U.S. in 2004. That liberation from oversight and regulation and taxation will create enough wealth to take care of everyone, that government is the obstacle, not the vessel, for securing the common good — that belief system lies in shards like the Berlin Wall and the statue of Saddam Hussein that stood in Baghdad’s Fardus Square. It cracked with the levees of New Orleans and, at the other end of the Mississippi, the I-35 bridge to Minneapolis, and now in the financial meltdown it has given way completely. Getting through the crisis at hand we have no choice but to do, with much pain along the way, and get through it we will. But the great question facing us is what will replace this fallen idol. Will it reflect our deepest democratic values and aspirations, or will ideology and greed triumph once again?

Now let us in the spirit of candor acknowledge that the recent Gilded Age we have experienced never worked for America’s children, certainly not for the least of them. Not for the 500,000 more children poorer in 2007 than the year before, giving us a child poverty rate of eighteen percent – the second worst, after Mexico, of the 26 richest countries of the world. Not the for 8 million kids without health insurance, 400,000 fewer last year than when Americans last went to the polls to vote for President in 2004. Not for the fifty percent of young black males who do not graduate with their high school cohort, or the thirty percent of all young people who don’t graduate at all. Not, according to the 2008-2009 American Human Development Report, for the black tenth-graders significantly more likely to attend schools with security guards, metal detectors, bars on windows, trash on the floor, graffiti and falling ceilings than white tenth-graders.

Homeland Insecurity, the terrifically succinct – and terrifically disturbing — compilation of data by the Every Child Matters Education Fund, has pages more of these disturbing figures. Toddlers enrolled in pre-school, child deaths, incarceration rates, per capita spending to protect abused children, UNICEF child well-being rankings: each of them tells the same story. International comparisons put the U.S well down the list of industrialized nations; domestic comparisons show, with rare exceptions in the Southwest and Mountain west, that the states of the old Confederacy consistently crowd the bottom. More than two hundred years into the American story, our children are still paying the price for slavery, Jim Crow and segregation.

I don’t usually rattle off a lot of statistics when I speak and write, but there’s something about the condition of America’s children and families that makes it hard not to do so, because here numbers tell a consistent and morally damning story. But that’s all for now. I am humbled by these words from a poem by Wislawa Szymborska, the Polish Nobel laureate:

Out of every hundred people, those who always know better: fifty-two
Unsure of every step: Almost all the rest

I don’t pretend to sureness at this moment, but I do think we can sketch out some characteristics of the scary period we are entering. I looked at the statistics – ok, just one more time — provided by GCYF about the philanthropic experience of those of us in this room, and it confirmed my impression that only a handful of us were in this line of work during the last great financial stresses of the late 1980’s and early ‘90s, which are fast coming to seem like a golden age. That means most of us have done our work in boom times in philanthropy, with parallel growth in non-profit budgets. But what we have ahead of us is quite different.

Virtually every foundation endowment stands at considerably less value today than it did only a few weeks ago, and assuming our institutions meet the commitments they have previously made, which most will, there will be dramatically less new money to give out in the next few years, at least. Non-profits fortunate enough to have endowments are also hurting – over the weekend I ran into a friend, the leader of one such organization, who has carefully built a reserve fund in the last several years only to see it drop by 30% in the flash of an eye. Such stories will be standard fare in the weeks and months to come.

Corporate philanthropy will be dramatically reduced, and among those in the financial services industries who have kept their jobs – or, indeed, their firms – most will be much less generous in their personal giving. Government revenues and social spending will continue to shrink – the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities just looked at the budget gaps of fifteen states, from California to Rhode Island, reeling from the credit crunch, and found six whose deficits are ten percent or more of the total budget. All this will have a sharp effect on the funding and programs of non-profit organizations, and in what kind of social climate? One in which human need – foreclosure, unemployment, greater health problems even less covered by insurance, hunger, homelessness, crime and violence — grows ever more acute.

What we are facing, then, is a kind of perfect storm.

How can we rise to this world-changing moment, in a way that is centrally connected to the challenge we face, but that also questions our own assumptions and philanthropic practices and behavior? I did not come here to add philanthropy to the list of those culpable for the mess we’re in, though there is plenty of blame to go around. But I do think we need to look within as we consider the future, and if all we do is obsess about how to divide an ever-shrinking pie of grant dollars to feed an ever-growing hunger, we will have failed ourselves and the moment.

Our field is famously divided by silos and interest groups, and indeed for many reasons gathering together in affinities of expertise and focus makes much sense. But there is also a cost. I wonder if the field of advocates, both on the non-profit service and advocacy side, and the funders who support them, could learn something from the pungent critique of the environmental movement that Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger delivered – to much wailing and gnashing of teeth in the field, I assure you – when they wrote The Death of Environmentalism in 2004.

In it, they charged that the environmental movement had become too entrenched, too insular, too small-bore, too easily characterized as a special interest, and asked what would happen if the environmental community identified the obstacles to success on global warming, for example, not as carbon emissions, but things on the following list: “the radical right’s control of all three branches of the U.S. government, trade policies that undermine environmental protections, our failure to articulate an inspiring and positive vision, overpopulation, the influence of money in American politics, our inability to craft legislative proposals that shape the debate around core American values, poverty, and old assumptions about what the problem is and isn’t.” Many of these obstacles may sound familiar to those who have worked hard to improve the lives of America’s children and families.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger questioned the “tendency to put the environment into an airtight container away from the concerns of others as [lying] at the heart of the environmental movement’s defensiveness on economic issues.” The atomization of the movement into boxes of discrete issues – for greens, the oceans, the skies, the rivers, and so on, all with their own regulatory framework, constituencies, committees, and advocates; for us, it might be SCHIP, or No Child Left Behind, or afterschool and summer learning advocates, who as a relative newcomer to this work I was astounded to learn do not always act in concert – is seen by the authors as an impediment, not an asset, to greater effectiveness. “Issues matter,” they argue, “only to the extent that they are positioned in ways linking them to proposals carrying within them a set of core beliefs, principles or values. The role of issues and proposals is to activate and sometimes change those deeply held values.”

Peter Teague, who heads the environment program at the Nathan S. Cummings Foundation, told Nordhaus and Shellenberger: “Most foundations accept these categorical assumptions just as our grantees do. We assign narrowly focused issue experts to make grants. We set them up to compete rather than cooperate. And we evaluate our progress according to our ability to promote technical policy fixes. The bottom line is that if we want different results we have to think and organize ourselves in a dramatically different way.” Or as John Muir, the founder of the Sierra Club, also speaking about the natural once said, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”

I ask you to think about whether any of this resonates with you. About whether we need to acknowledge and act on the hitched nature of our fates. About whether our focus on programs, fixes, and increments has obscured a larger social justice vision and the broad and deep changes in national priorities that will be necessary to bring it into being. No doubt the argument will be made that the compromises we have made in recent years, as market fundamentalism has been in the saddle, and divided or conservative one-party government the rule for nearly two generations, have been unavoidable, engineered to provide the best we can manage in a barren climate. And I do not stand here to judge, for indeed Atlantic Philanthropies has joined many of you in calibrating its work and its funding priorities accordingly.

But we may also have set a trap for ourselves. We have largely failed to articulate a broad and inclusive social vision that works toward the world as we would like it to be, not simply in the wretched state in which we find it. We have often lost the gifts of collaboration and common purpose with others who share our greater values. To have sat out the battles of the last ten and twenty years as non-combatants – while the treasury was sapped by a reckless war and by tax cuts that literally transferred our common wealth from those who need it most to those who already have the most – has left us poorly equipped for the reconstruction that must take place.

I am not here to lay out a blueprint for that reconstruction, and all the changes that must take place for it to succeed, and reflect the principles of justice and equity that must guide it. In any case, that is for all of us, coming together, to work out. But I do have three thoughts about what I believe must be among its key elements.

First, as I have suggested, we need to widen the lens that we have been using. Doing it for the children has been useful and often effective as a rhetorical device in tough political times, when the climate is not receptive to a broader vision. When it is possible – as it has started to become in the last few years, with a national debate emerging about persistent poverty, which can be named for what it is, and not covered over with euphemisms – or when it is unavoidable, as I believe it is in the current crisis, this frame is inadequate. We talk about children partly because they actually are the future of society, but also because they are a wedge that can sometimes overcome partisan and ideological resistance – not because we don’t care about the plight of young black men on a conveyor belt to prison or older single women who have to choose which two meals to forgo each day.

One of the things this means in America at this time is that children’s advocates and those who have been more identified with seniors can no longer afford to act as actors in a zero-sum game. It means that the continuing fight to insure all children for health coverage is seen as part of a larger, and ever more urgent fight to make certain that for every person in America, as Senator Obama put it in the last debate, health care is a right, not a privilege.

That leads me to my second thought, which is that we need to bring children and family issues out of the realm of the good and the desirable to the realm of the necessary and the essential. That is, we need to embrace, as most of the rest of the world does, the language of human rights. For as former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark once said, a right is “not what someone gives you – it is what no one can take away from you.” I have been a human rights advocate all my adult life, but even I had become inured to the bifurcation of economic and social rights and political rights that has always characterized American discourse until I started to work for Atlantic, a global foundation, and learned that our Irish grantees and partners, the counterparts of the people in this room, and of the communities we fund, see the work they do as central to a human rights framework, as surely as freedom of speech and religion. We have a long way to go to bring about that consciousness in the United States, but it is what we must work toward.

Third, we must continue on the promising path followed by many in philanthropy who have come to recognize that whatever they believe works best to improve the lives of children and families, we can’t get there without the steady support of policy institutes and advocacy organizations who make the case for changes in law and increases in social investments. There is no excuse for treating this as someone else’s business. We are to a great extent in the fix we are in because a handful of foundations on the right realized that advocacy and policy were essential to the change they were seeking, from deregulation to school vouchers. It is important to support child advocates, of course, and Atlantic joins many of you in doing so. But it is also important to support organizations whose work on behalf of children and families is grounded in a broader vision of social justice, and to do so, to the extent possible, with critical core support over a multi-year period, because one thing we know is that these are not short-term battles. The Center for Community Change, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the National Council of La Raza – I am proud that these fine and visionary organizations, working from a broad and inclusive vision, are among the lead grantees of Atlantic’s kids programme.

I pledged to avoid bromides, but as with statistics, I will fall off the wagon one more time as I close. One of the trustiest bromides is truer than ever, that the famous Chinese ideogram for “crisis” is comprised of the characters for danger and opportunity. That applies, to be sure, to our political leadership at the hinge of history at which we find ourselves this morning. As historian Rick Perlstein recently wrote in the American Prospect, the greatest moments of social reform in the last century, the lasting alterations in our political and social landscape, took place under conditions of national crisis – the New Deal in the throes of the Great Depression, the landmark civil rights bills after the Kennedy assassination. They were bold and sweeping, not timid and tentative.

We want and deserve that from our political leaders. But we must also demand it of ourselves.