THE OPEN MIND
Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guest: Franklin Thomas
I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. This is the second of a two-part series with Franklin Thomas, President of the Ford Foundation.
Mr. Thomas, thanks for staying where you were at the end of the last program. I was beginning to ask you about the potential given the cutback in our providing what have come to be considered entitlements to the less fortunate people in our society, what the potential is for trouble in this country as government says, “We’re not going to provide what we have provided in the past”.
THOMAS: I think the potential is enormous. I think it is masked currently by the recession. And I mean by that, with the recession there is a general sense that deprivation is widespread. Unemployment is high in all groups. It’s particularly high in the auto industry and those industries related to it. The kind of coverage we’re seeing in the daily press talks about the plight of wide cross-sections of America resulting from the recession. Within that general plight is a disproportionately adverse impact on particular segments of the society. I mean, 40 to 50 percent youth unemployment in minority communities. That figure’s spreading to even the adult minority community, rising to the high teens and low 20s in terms of percent of unemployment. When the recession ends – and I assume that will happen – and the economy will start its growth cycle again, it is likely that the pervasive sense of deprivation and difficulty will begin to erode, because employment will start up again for many segments of the economy, many segments of our society. And what will be left behind are those persons for whom we do not have jobs, the world where we have jobs, their training is not adequate to hold or maintain the jobs. And I think we’ll get a tremendous schism between segments o the population which will, I think, intensify the risk to our social cohesion as a nation. And it’s been in an effort to address that underlying problem and reality that most of the social programs in job development, job training, education and the like have been focused in recent years, with some beginning signs of success, certainly over the manpower demonstration and research organizations’ efforts in this regard, certainly with certain of the welfare mothers whose employability was increased, whose job retention was significantly improved through these program. I think we are likely to experience enormous strains on social cohesion when the economy starts to blossom again, and the disproportionately adverse effects on particular segments of our society are dramatically evident.
HEFFNER: You mean it will become clear that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer?
THOMAS: Well, I think in addition to that reality, which I think is not an unfair characterization of the way some of the recent cuts have resulted, there will be the reality that even the near poor and the moderate income persons in the country, if you are white and living in a particular part of the country, you’re back at work. And while you’re still struggling, you have a job and you have income and you have a reason for a reasonably positive expectation about the future. When you contrast that to what the statistics and their realities suggest is likely to be the case for large segments of the minority community in the country, I think you don’t have to be much of a social scientist or a psychologist to recognize that this is going to intensify the risk of alienation, the risk of disruption, the risk of problem.
HEFFNER: Those are larger words that perhaps we are going to end up using. You’re talking about the end of social cohesion. Not the end of it, but a rupture in social cohesion. You’re talking about riots, then. You’re talking about trouble in the streets.
THOMAS: I’m talking about an intensification of the full panoply of antisocial behavior, which is, you know, riots are part of that perhaps, but it’s even more dramatic than the riot. It’s the sense that if you tell me my life is valueless, you don’t care about my welfare, you encourage in me a disrespect for the value of your life, of your property, of your welfare. That isn’t the message we want to communicate to one another as a society.
HEFFNER: But if we do, if when the present recession ends – and as you suggest, it will – and there is a further dichotomization, there is an awareness of a further dichotomization between those who have and those who have not, what do you anticipate will happen?
THOMAS: Well, historically there are two tracks, fundamentally, which can then develop. One is to target special programs and initiatives towards addressing the problem through education, through job creation, through training and the like. The other is repression.
HEFFNER: And what do you anticipate?
THOMAS: I don’t know. I really don’t know. If you’re right in your earlier statements as to what you perceive the current state of American attitudes to be, that is what the B-1 bombers, forget about them, then I suspect the odds would weigh towards repression. If I’m right that the current state of thinking beneath the surface in America is none of concern for human welfare and the basic needs, then I suspect the track is likely to be targeted programs, some effort addressing this problem. We are going to have to try and remake the systems we have dismantled in the past few years in order to bring that about.
HEFFNER: But don’t you also…But won’t we also have to remake not just the systems, not just the structure, not just the programs, but the attitudes and the feelings of those who will have experienced that sense of alienation that you’re talking about now?
THOMAS: Well, I think that’s right. I think that’s currently a problem, by the way, and one which concerns a lot of us. If you go in and around the communities where this unemployment phenomenon, this lack of hope, and the perception of uncaring on the part of the larger society is most dramatically felt, I think there is a beginning serious worry right now as to what that can do to the attitudes of some in those communities. I should say, because this shouldn’t be all doom and gloom, and it isn’t intended to be that, there is an accompanying reality which is also going on, and that is a reaching inside oneself to try and find the where withal and the strength to do something for yourself. That’s the healthy dimension of this. And both things exist side by side. You don’t have to pick one or the other. They’re both there. The difficulty in expressing this second dimension, that is self-reliance, the importance of taking some initiative and responsibility in a major way for yourself. The difficulty is that when you emphasize that reality which also exists, there’s a tendency to assume that you are therefore embracing the current policies and attitudes which are involved. And my point is that if you want to realistically assess what’s going on, you have both the alienation, the disaffection the hostility building, and you have some self-reliance and development going on. Part of the struggle, it seems to me, for those of us who work, live and hear these problems on a daily basis is to find handles which say it’s okay, it’s desirable to be self-reliant, it’s desirable to pursue ways in which you can help yourself. That’s something to be encouraged. It’s also desirable to try and influence the way policy is made in the country so as not to place undue burdens on your ability to do something about your circumstance.
HEFFNER: You know, a moment ago I saw what I thought was a switch. Not an ideological switch, but a switch inside that, in which you said to yourself, “Listen, don’t be all doom and gloom”. And which you stopped yourself from being so. Do you feel that to be a subjective necessity? Or are you really responding to what you think is the level of hopefulness in our society today?
THOMAS: Oh, I think it’s probably a mix of both. I think there’s, you know, my basic personal philosophy is that to the extent that there are realistic basis for hope in any situation, you have to approach that situation so as to encourage, reinforce, and develop those realistic basis for hope if you are going to be a responsible worker in that arena. At the same time, you cannot and should not close your eyes to the larger realities which may be going on. And my point in saying this shouldn’t be all doom and gloom is that in an effort to make the point about the current masking of the disproportionately negative impacts going on in certain segments of the society, and the likely problem which is going to be unmasked as the recession ends and the recovery starts, I really wanted to draw in as sharp relief as possible this probable development and its probable consequences. At the same time, to not ignore the fact that within these communities, within my community or all of them, within many where the foundation and others work, there are accompanying phenomena going on. People are not simply lying down waiting for someone else to say to them, “Here’s what I’m going to do for you”. People are taking increased responsibility for themselves, for their own lives, trying to influence the quality of their housing, the quality of their schools, the quality of the merchandise sold in the stores where thy have to buy, and the quality of childcare available to them, and the like. Those initiatives are underway, and they need to be encouraged and expanded.
HEFFNER: You know, I can’t help but think. You’re in a position in which what you say is taken not just as analysis but as an indication of policy, and taken as an indication of what is going to be. You are a doer as well as a thinker. The foundation does a very great deal. In your Bedford Stuyvesant days you did a very, very great deal. I’m an observer. And as one-time historian, I guess I’m more concerned with trying to think through what is likely to happen. Not just with the possibilities, because you state the possibilities very well; but with where the bet has to be made. In a sense, you spoke before about two paths, two roads. They’re not parallel. One of which would be repression as a response to what is happening in our time. The thing that disturbs me is that once people like yourself touch on this, they move back from it very quickly. It’s thinking the unthinkable. And if you don’t think the unthinkable, you’re not prepared for what is going to happen. You touch upon it and then you move back. And you move back with that native optimism of yours and that feeling that we can do so much, and that you want people to do it. I guess I ask myself how realistic that is in terms of the real bets that you’d make.
THOMAS: Well, I think that’s an appropriate question for you to put. It seems to me that part of what informs that segment of our population which is not in touch with the conditions in the communities I’m describing, part of what informs that segment of the population is the speculation about probabilities of negative occurrences. That’s healthy, it seems to me. That’s appropriate. I will join in that discussion and the debate. But that can’t rest alone. Because it is not the sole reality, the sole determinant of what is going to be. I guess if you ask me what the ideal mix ought to be in terms of a national attitude and local initiative, it would be a shift in what appears to be the current national attitude towards one which clearly embraces the obligation of government to provide opportunity for persons to work, to grow, to get educated and healthy and the like, and to make certain that those who are unable to take care of themselves have sufficient support from the rest of us so that they live beyond the margins of live. Accompanied by the most active aggressive self-help initiative possible in the many communities across this country, because when and if the government attitudes shift, if you don’t have in place a system of self-help, initiative, a respect for education, a respect for the pursuit of excellence, a respect for work, you can’t take appropriate advantage of that shift in national thinking and national policy.
HEFFNER: How are you…
THOMAS: It’s not self-actualizing.
HEFFNER: Well, then you’re the one person I can ask this question of: How and where are you putting your money where your mouth is?
THOMAS: Well, we put our money and our energy towards helping local initiatives which are spawned by persons directly affected by whatever the adversity is. Where they come together in an effort to try and improve housing, improve jobs, improve the quality of life on the street, safely, improved childcare facilities, etcetera, and where in their efforts to improve those they reach out to involve the resources of the larger community, the resources of corporations, the resources of government, the resources of others. We assist in identifying and helping to finance, in helping to record the experience of these groups so that they directly benefit from the experience they’re having, and the larger society is better informed by that experience so that it knows how to more effectively deploy resources out of the general pot, so that when deployed the resources are more likely to produce the desired results rather that less likely to produce those results.
HEFFNER: Do you mean you’re just sitting in wait there for the day when there is that switch?
THOMAS: And we also finance the kinds of thinkers like yourself and others to travel, to observe, to write, to comment.
HEFFNER: I’ll take you up on that.
THOMAS: (Laughter) I invite you. One of the nice things about this job is that when persons come with good ideas they’re really helping me do my job better. I don’t view that as a burden. And any in your audience who want to take advantage of that…
HEFFNER: My gosh!
THOMAS: …they may. But it does seem to me that both the provision of resources to help persons work in and near their communities to improve them, the linking of those efforts to those who make national policy to combine some sense of assessment, evaluation which allows us to say, “Pursue it in this manner. We are more likely to provide meaningful long term help than if we pursue this issue in a different manner”. But that, both support for initiative, support for analysis, support for the learning process which takes place is really one of the unique dimensions that a foundation can facilitate.
HEFFNER: What right does a foundation, whose resources are based upon a great industrial empire, have to construct and support thinking about changes in the society itself? I gather Mr. Ford removed himself to some considerable extent from the ford Foundation with the thought there had been some support for ideas generally that in their own way undermine the general capitalistic system. Is that unfair totally?
THOMAS: Well, when you put “totally” on the end of it, it’s a hooker.
HEFFNER: Well, that’s why I put it there.
THOMAS: (Laughter) It’s, there is some substance to the comment of Henry Ford’s letter to the trustees upon his departure, which included a question as to whether an adequate attention to the system which produced the wealth or is embodied in some of what the foundation did…
HEFFNER: Attention, or support?
THOMAS: Attention primarily. In that same letter there is enormous praise for the variety of activities the foundation engages in, though that portion of the letter tends not to get quoted as often as the criticism. I think your question about by what right, it seems to me two things are worth saying there. One is that philanthropy as a part of American life predates any tax provision which encouraged the creation of foundations. I mean, it goes back to long before there was taxation, and is as basic to our sense of our system as almost anything else. The second point is that the public has really said that we think our system of democracy functions better by having in place some institutions relatively free of government and government’s often short-term, next-election orientation, free of the for-profit side of our economic system which is driven by quarterly and annual profit margins, that sits somewhere in the middle of the two, can take a longer view of some of our issues and problems, can finance pursuit of those activities at times when that may be out of favor with government as well as in favor with government, because we think over time we are going to be a healthier society if we keep in place this kind of relative independent capacity to explore and pursue social development, social welfare issues than if that did not exist. But there are times in any society’s life when the level of public emotion gets so high that we stop thinking about given subjects. Recognizing that probability in the course of human behavior, we have really said as a society, we want to have something in place that acts as the counterweight to that, when that counterweight is important to us. And that something includes private philanthropy.
HEFFNER: My question usually is, where is it written, where is it said, when was it said? All the things that you’ve just indicated.
THOMAS: Well, I think you’d have to go back to the early provisions of the tax law, which really is the mechanism through which some of this happens. But I guess more basic than that, you’d have to go back to the notion of private philanthropy period. The notion of individuals who make up 90 percent of the charitable activities in the country. I mean, the foundations get focused on, but collectively they dispense about two and a half billion dollars a year out of what is basically a $40 billion a year charitable activity. It’s church related, it’s school related, it’s local organization related. It includes the volunteer dimension which we’ve talked about earlier. The notion of reaching out to assist and help in the delivery and provision of certain services in your neighborhood, in your church, in your school, and the like, providing library service, whatever it is, meals on wheels, books, reading, you name it, has been a longstanding practice, widely accepted in this country as a desirable thing to have. The beginning creation of pools of money through which this can be organized and carried out, whether solicited through the mails or otherwise on an annual basis, or assembled through the estates or the gifts of those who have had great wealth, is I think, largely a natural outgrowth of that instinct and phenomenon we have been talking about.
HEFFNER: Well there was a period though not so many years ago when there seemed to be some hostility toward foundations that seemed in their work to be underwriting those elements that undermined, maybe a Socrates who was too much of a gadfly. And that doesn’t seem to be the case so much now, and I wondered if that’s because foundations have had a lower profile.
THOMAS: Well, I’m not sure. I think the ’69 Tax Act and the events leading up to it are a good reflection of the point you were making earlier. But if you think in terms of the thousands of grant actions the foundations make each year, and the fact that it only takes a few grants with which some powerful person’s disagreeing to trigger a congressional or related investigation, if anything is surprising it’s that we have as few as we do. (Laughter) But I think in the course of having those inquiries, whether through the press or through the Congress or elsewhere, what we are all saying is that within the bounds of the freedom and responsibility we ascribe to you there are limits. And from time to time we come after you and chop your fingers a little bit and cause you to rearticulate and rededicate yourself to the underlying principles which we think exist. I think the ’69 act was a particularly difficult one because it really carried a much more basic message which has since been modified by the Congress, and that was that foundations in effect ought to spend themselves out of existence. And I think that has been modified. And I think that notion was a mistake, and I think it was seen as a mistake, and it was generated in the heat of great emotion, and has been modified.
HEFFNER: We have about 45 seconds left. In that time, tell me, do you think that foundations are today making as important as basic contributions as they were 15, 20 years ago?
THOMAS: I think yes, in this country, an increasingly around the world. I think the green revolution with which the world has been basically able to keep up its food production with population growth is in large measure traceable to the work of foundations. I think the sense of human rights and the importance of their protection across national boundaries is largely resting on the work of foundations because governments and others tend to shy away from those issues. I think the notion of a basic right and obligation, if you will, on the part of the citizen to expect something more of his or her government than merely governance and control is also nurtured and encouraged by foundations.
HEFFNER: It’s funny. We end where we begin. Thanks so much for joining me again today, Franklin Thomas, President of the Ford Foundation.
THOMAS: Thank you very much.
HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope that you will join us again here on THE OPEN MIND. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck”.