Charity, progressive philanthropy, and eugenics

Sep 6, 2023

Remembering Cordelia Taylor and her love for others.

Cordelia Taylor, the founder of Family House in Milwaukee, died last week. The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, on the program staff of which we Giving Review co-editors worked for a collective sum of decades, substantially supported Family House. 

In co-editor William A. Schambra’s remarks to a Philadelphia Society regional meeting in Milwaukee on October 8, 2005, he talked about Taylor, describing Family House and this support. The remarks are below. Other, different remarks by Schambra about Taylor are here.


We meet today less than five miles from the charity I regard as the north star of all my thoughts on the topic of philanthropy, namely, Cordelia Taylor’s Family House. Mrs. Taylor is a nursing home administrator who had become disenchanted with the bureaucratic and inhumane procedures of the large facilities where she had been working. So she undertook to open her own community-based senior care facility, located in the house on 11th Street where she had raised her family. The neighborhood had deteriorated badly since then, but that made it the ideal place to provide services for the low-income and no-income seniors who were closest to her heart. The demand was such that she soon expanded to the house next door, then to another and another, until Family House included most of the block. Today, the houses are connected by a wooden ramp, surrounding a pleasant garden with a fountain in the middle. Several plots are set aside for raising vegetables and flowers, raised so that even wheelchair-bound residents can still get their hands into the soil. For many of the impoverished residents who pass their last days here, it is the nicest place they will ever have lived. 

Mrs. Taylor has earned her share of plaudits for her work. Readers’ Digest featured Family House in one of its issues; Oprah has had her on the show; and The Today Show’s Al Roker stopped in with his cameras and a truckload of gifts. And yet for all her incredible work, for all the recognition she has earned, she has been unable to attract support from any of the nation’s larger foundations. How can that be?

Such is the enduring legacy of progressivism for American philanthropy. Just as our first large foundations—Rockefeller, Carnegie, and Russell Sage—were being created around the turn of the twentieth century, that era’s progressive movement pointed the way to a bold, hopeful human future through the application of the newly developing social sciences to human problems. By investing in the development and applications of these sciences, foundations would now be able to delve down to the “root causes” of problems, rather than merely treating the symptoms. As John D. Rockefeller put it, “the best philanthropy is constantly in search for finalities—a search for cause, an attempt to cure the evils at their source.” Indeed, the distinction between addressing root cause and mere symptom became synonymous with the distinction between philanthropy and charity, with the word “charity” now uttered in a tone of slightly bemused contempt.

And so it was that these first foundations—and most large foundations since—came to pour resources into the development and deployment of social sciences like economics, psychology, sociology, and public administration. They shaped the first major American research universities at Johns Hopkins and Chicago, as well as public policy research institutes like Brookings and the National Bureau of Economic Research, and coordinating bodies like the Social Science Research Council. Tocqueville’s old idea that America was ennobled by everyday citizens stepping forward to solve their own problems had to give way to a new view of public life, now securely in the hands of objective, nonpartisan professionals and experts, who alone could grasp and manage efficiently the complexities of modern industrial life. Foundation funding would pave the way for this transfer of authority: as one Rockefeller mission statement put it, its funding was designed to “increase the body of knowledge which in the hands of competent social technicians may be expected in time to result in substantial social control.” Centralized social control in the hands of social technicians required an effort to circumvent and diminish local ethnic, fraternal, and neighborhood groups, which still took their bearings from benighted religion, rather than from the new sciences of society.

One new science seemed to the progressives to be particularly promising: the science of eugenics. Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, and his son “Junior” were persuaded that, just as tracking physiological diseases back to germs had begun to eliminate root causes of medical ailments, so tracking social pathology—crime, pauperism, dipsomania, and moral laxity—back to defective genes would allow us to attack it at its roots. If, as seemed clear, feeblemindedness was the heritable source of most social dysfunction, then the solution was equally clear: confine and where possible sterilize the unfit. Junior had come to realize the importance of permanently confining promiscuous women after service on a special grand jury investigating prostitution in New York in 1910. This was the only “scientific way of escape from the evils which our courts are intended to correct but in reality only increase.” From the perspective of philanthropic eugenics, the old practice of charity—that is, simply alleviating human suffering—was not only inefficient, it was downright dangerous. As birth control heroine Margaret Sanger put it, America’s charitable institutions are the “surest signs that our civilization has bred, is breeding, and is perpetuating constantly increasing numbers of defectives, delinquents, and dependents.”  

Quintessentially progressive Wisconsin was no slouch in the implementation of eugenics. As Daniel Kevles’ history In the Name of Eugenics noted, the force behind the sterilization movement here was Albert Wilmarth, superintendent of the Home for the Feebleminded. He readily enlisted the state medical society and leading scholars at the University of Wisconsin in his crusade, most notably Edward A. Ross, perhaps the nation’s leading sociologist. University president and prominent progressive Charles Van Hise maintained, “We know enough about eugenics so that if the knowledge were applied, the defective classes would disappear within a generation.”

The problem of defective genes, of course, was compounded at the time by the fact that literally boatloads of the allegedly genetically inferior were arriving daily on America’s shores. As Junior noted in a sophomore essay at Brown in 1894, the new immigrants were “decidedly of the wrong class. They are chiefly the scum of foreign cities; the vagabond, the tramp, the pauper, and the indolent … ignorant and hardly better than beasts.” While his biographers assure us that this was a youthful indiscretion, he and Carnegie would go on to fund the Eugenics Record Office at New York’s Cold Spring Harbor. Its director, Charles Davenport, lent scientific weight to Junior’s enthusiasms, warning that the new blood coming from Southeastern Europe would make the American population “darker in pigmentation, smaller in stature, more mercurial … more given to crimes of larceny, kidnapping, assault, murder, rape and sex-immorality.” Rockefeller money would later go toward research institutions in Germany that were also seeking ways to discourage the propagation of inferior races. By the time Cold Spring Harbor’s eugenics program ended in the late 30s, immigration had been severely curtailed, 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 20th century.

The deep affinity between progressive, “root causes” philanthropy and eugenics has long since been expunged from the historical record, of course, like Junior’s sophomore scribblings. Turn to any standard history or biography in the field of philanthropy, turn to the index, look under “E,” and I can more or less guarantee that you will find no reference to eugenics. But the initial biases of progressivism, if perhaps not eugenics, are still very much apparent in the attitudes of contemporary philanthropy: the insistence on funding social science-based enterprises along with a hesitancy to fund faith-based institutions; the preference for the trained professional over the amateur; the denigration of local, parochial civic groups in the name of the centralized social technician; and, of course, a determination to attack the root causes of problems rather than simply to ameliorate them. The most advanced foundations barely consider unsolicited requests for funding. Rather, they design their own programs based on the latest academic expertise, closely monitor and provide expert counsel to the nonprofits they select to carry them out, and measure the results using the latest social science evaluation techniques. This reliance on expertise, plus the fact that, unlike business and government, foundations are beholden to no one, leads them to claim that they are peculiarly able to discern the public interest in a nonpartisan, objective fashion. All of these attitudes and practices are, of course, reflections of modern philanthropy’s progressive origins.

They also mean that the Cordelia Taylors of the world need not apply. Mrs. Taylor is not attacking the root causes of poverty among the elderly, but rather providing comfort and care in the final hours of the lives of the poor. She is not trying out some new social science approach to senior care, just seeing to it that no one dies alone and unwanted. Though she herself is technically trained, she makes clear that her mission and her strength flow from God. Other than a handful of nurses, most of her employees are local mothers just off the welfare roles, not trained experts. For all the good she done on this earth, Cordelia Taylor’s Family House cannot hope for a dime from America’s largest foundations.

But Mrs. Taylor has been funded generously and proudly by Milwaukee’s Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, where I served for over 10 years. That may surprise some of you, who know the foundation chiefly as a leading funder of the American conservative intellectual infrastructure. But it underlines a fundamental operating principle at Bradley. The public policy ideas for which it is best known are not abstract conceptions or experimental hunches. Rather, they have been shaped by working with and learning from worthwhile institutions and neighborhood leaders in Bradley’s own Milwaukee backyard. We came to work with Mrs. Taylor, for instance, because for us she embodied Bob Woodson’s conviction that the real experts in social policy are found not in the universities, but in the neighborhoods, where families, houses of faith, voluntary associations and other “mediating structures” effectively meet human needs. Our experience with her and other outstanding neighborhood leaders led us to formulate and fund an agenda for “new citizenship,” seeking to promote the revitalization of the “small platoons” of society, including especially faith-based institutions. It is not too much to say that President Bush’s original notion of compassionate conservatism owes a great deal to the exemplary charities and the sympathetic scholars Bradley funded throughout the 1990s.

Similarly with school choice: Bradley supported it not because it seemed like a good idea in the abstract, but more important because we had practical, concrete relationships with the schools, pupils, and parents in Milwaukee who stood to benefit from school choice, foremost among the schools being Brother Bob Smith’s splendid Messmer High School, just a few miles north. And when Bradley supported welfare reform, it funded not only the scholarship behind the concept, but also local training and job placement agencies like the late Bill Lock’s Community Enterprises of Greater Milwaukee, which would be on the front lines of implementing reform, as well as safety net programs like the Milwaukee Rescue Mission.

Surely the success of these programs owes a great deal to the fact that the foundation stands face-to-face with their consequences. They arise from and reflect the wisdom and counsel of Bradley’s network of trusted local leaders, most of whom live within a 10-minute drive of foundation headquarters. There is no walking away from the outcomes. They involve Bradley’s friends and neighbors.  

By contrast, progressive “root causes” philanthropy insists that we move as quickly as we can past the surface of human relationship, in order to reach the underlying, abstract forces that truly shape human affairs. In our pursuit of the remote and invisible, the immediate and visible can only distract us. Scientific rigor should not be compromised by sentimental attachments.  

So it is that the pursuit of root causes starts us down the road that leads to eugenics. Once we have steeled ourselves to look past the sufferer directly before us in order to track down the ultimate source of suffering, we have detached ourselves from the human consequences of our philanthropy. It becomes too easy to conclude that the most merciful way to alleviate suffering is to prevent anyone from becoming a sufferer, by any means necessary. We become vulnerable to British socialist Havelock Ellis’s argument that “the superficially sympathetic man flings a coin to the beggar; the more deeply sympathetic man builds an almshouse for him; but perhaps the most radically sympathetic of all is the man who arranges that the beggar shall not be born.”

In the face of modern philanthropy’s scorn for the idea of charity, our experience with eugenics suggests rather the indispensability of charity—of loving care for our neighbor who suffers. Without a secure grounding in charity, philanthropy all too readily transmutes itself into misanthropy. To prevent that, every foundation, every individual donor, should befriend, fund, trust, and listen to the sage counsel of their own Cordelia Taylors. With a Mrs. Taylor in mind, the donor should ask, how are my gifts helping or hindering her work? Progressivism explicitly sought to transcend such petty, particularistic allegiances. We must seek to reestablish and honor those allegiances. Otherwise, as we enter an age of unfettered genetic manipulation, our philanthropy may well take us again down the road of eugenics. It is more urgent than ever for us to realize that, in order to work good rather than ill, even the largest philanthropy must have charity at its heart.

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