Monday, November 16, 2015

Privatizing the Public Sphere, 2.0

More than 30 years ago, when I was still hanging around my undergraduate college the year after I graduated, I got into a public debate with another student about how our student fees were spent.

Let me back up. The year before, I had been financial vice president of the student government, so I was pretty familiar with the student fee, and knew that it was allocated to student groups for activities. Students decided how it was spent through hearings, committee decisions, and finally a vote in the elected student assembly.

The following year, the university decided that it would be appropriate to increase the fee to pay for improvements to the one of the gym buildings. I was outraged. This would be the first time the fee was used to pay for part of the university's physical plant, setting a precedent that, I was sure, would come in handy for the university in the future. Supporters of the plan argued that the gym renovations would benefit students, so using the student fee was fine.

It all came rushing back to me when I read this story, Philanthropies Rise as Source of Revenue for Pressed U.S. Cities. Examples given include:

  • the C.S. Mott Foundation is paying to replace water pipes in Flint, Michigan
  • Detroit foundations pledged $360 million to shore up public-employee pensions
  • an Alabama foundation is buying cop cars for a municipality
And we all know about foundations, entrepreneurs, and corporations that help fund the "public" schools.

All of this would have shocked me 30 years ago, and is an indicator of the privatization of the public sphere since the Reagan years. The key problem with this type of funding is summarized nicely in the story:
The risk for cities receiving foundation assistance is that they become reliant on the kindness of strangers rather than the taxpayers they serve. Rob Collier, president and chief executive officer of the Council of Michigan Foundations, said there is “a huge problem of sustainability” because municipalities can’t assume support will continue.
It's bad enough that nonprofit organizations have to subsist on year-to-year grants with constant begging and staffing structured to write grant proposals that appeal to rich people. (Photogenic children and puppies aren't the only parts of our society that need funding.) It's a corrupting force all its own.

Target's recent decision to yank its Redcard education donations — deciding to reallocate them to wellness charities — is a great example of why public infrastructure shouldn't be funded through charitable giving. As I've said before, philanthropy and nonprofits can't make up for core government programs.

No comments: