Bypassed: How Philanthropy Forgot About the White Working Class

If there’s one sure takeaway from the 2016 election, it’s that non-college-educated whites are furious at America’s cosmopolitan elite. And well they should be: The white working class has been decimated over the past few decades by economic shifts that elites of all stripes have either actively abetted or barely lifted a finger to challenge.

Foundations and major donors share the blame for this dismal failure – tending either to ignore a white working class in crisis or bankroll policies that have exacerbated that crisis.

Let’s start with globalization, far and away the biggest driver of the economic disaster that’s beset non-college-educated workers – not just by shifting manufacturing jobs overseas, but by depressing wages for all lower-skilled jobs, as economists like Josh Bevins have pointed out.

Can you name a foundation that focuses on global trade and its impact on American living standards?

Right, me neither. That’s because not a single major private foundation does significant grantmaking in this area. Those nonprofits that raise critical questions about trade, such as the Economic Policy Institute and Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch find it a herculean task to raise money for this work. Back when I was in the think tank world, I tried to find grants for a trade initiative – only to give up and shut down the nascent program I had developed.

Now, to be sure, there are some philanthropic dollars available for work on international economic policy, but most of that money flows from corporate funders or major donors from the business world. As I’ve described in the past, the premier Washington think tank in this space – the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a proponent of more free trade – is heavily funded by major corporations and the wealthy. Other think tanks that favor more free trade, like the American Enterprise Institute, have also done very well with major donors.

So to recap: Even as globalization has devastated whole swaths of the American heartland and reduced living standards for tens of millions of Americans, nearly all the funding for work on this issue has gone to the cheerleaders of free trade, and it’s come from donors who’ve been the top winners from more open borders.

Of course, free trade has created many benefits for ordinary consumers, and my point is not to say there are easy or clear-cut solutions to this challenging area. Rather, my point is that most funders have either tuned out the negative effects of free trade or been fervent supporters of greater liberalization of global markets.

It’s not surprising that so few funders seem to care much about the plight of the white working class. National philanthropy tends to be the province of a cosmopolitan elite that is quite removed from the lives of Americans in flyover territory. The liberal philanthropoid class is largely drawn from the ranks of a highly educated meritocracy that’s been doing quite well in the new information age, where nice rewards come to those with strong cognitive skills and access to the best educational opportunities. What’s more, this class is disproportionately based in coastal and urban areas, far away from the heartland zones of despair where wages have plunged and mortality rates have soared. (And which Trump will win today by double-digit margins.)

Most of the poor people in America are white. But the foundation world has tended to focus on poverty in communities of color, and here, funders really can be proud of the efforts they’ve made and some of the impacts they’ve had. However, while quite a few of these anti-poverty successes also deliver benefits to poor whites, the plight of this group is otherwise not on the foundation world’s mental front burner.

The major donor class is even more checked out. It’s always important to remember that, when it comes to public policy, the rich really are different from ordinary folks: They are more conservative on economic issues and more liberal on social issues. Surveys show that affluent people are far more likely to favor free trade than lower-income Americans and far less likely to favor efforts to create jobs or raise the minimum wage. Meanwhile, today’s upper class takes it as a given that immigration is a good thing and is increasingly coalescing around an ecological agenda that many lower-class whites view as threatening, especially the millions who work in the fossil fuel industry, long a reliable source of livelihood for non-college-educated whites.

Donald Trump doesn’t have any real solutions to the plight of the white working class, and many of his proposals would make things worse. Still, the millions who will vote for him today are not entirely irrational: The elites that govern America have failed them, and they are casting a vote against those elites.

After this election, the philanthropy world needs to think long and hard about what it can do to address the plight of struggling white Americans who feel forgotten. These people tend live in small towns and exurban or rural areas in interior states. Philanthropy, as we know, has never done a very good job of reaching these places and lots of ideas have been floated over time for how funders might do more rural grantmaking. Now would be a good time to revisit that conversation. We’ve written a bit at IP lately, for example, about some of the interesting things funders are doing in Appalachia and in Rust Belt cities. In both areas, there’s room for plenty more grantmaking and creative thinking. The same goes for helping farmers, where there are also some good things going on among funders and lots of opportunity for new grantmakers to get involved.

Putting new funding into critical work on trade and globalization could be helpful, too. That’s an issue where there’s an urgent need for a more inclusive and balanced debate. It's not okay that the losers from globalization have so little voice in policy deliberations. 

Ultimately, though, the challenge goes deeper. For a bunch of reasons, philanthropy is a sector that’s especially dominated by the kind of cosmopolitan elites who are now viewed with strong distrust by many Americans. There’s a profound cultural gap between the holders or gatekeepers of great philanthropic wealth and ordinary citizens who live far from the Acela corridor and feel like corks getting buffeted around in today’s economy.  

How can we close that gap? That’s a longer discussion, but I think many of the tools that are now emerging to make philanthropy more responsive—engaging with communities, listening to grantees, and so on—will be an important part of any solution.