For the past several months, I’ve had the honor to work at one of the nation’s—and world’s—most recognizable non-profit organization. In the short time that I have been there, I’ve seen my co-workers and a band of committed volunteers rise to face some of the most devastating disasters in my state and across the country. While they are off saving some and making life better for others, I’m back at the office putting ink in copiers, climbing roofs to see where leaks are, and resolving disputes over whether or not the location of a portable television stand in the garage is breaking OSHA standards.
While my job isn’t the most glamorous and certainly not the most visible, it has its perks. One is getting a honest view on the state of my community. When manning the phones, I received calls about house fires as well as calls for information on different classes we offer, but the common request is for financial or necessity assistance (I define necessity assistance as requests for the necessities of life—food, water, and clothing). Oftentimes, after I suggest a name of another local organization whose mission is a better fit to serve these clients, the person on the other end says they’ve already called and there aren’t any funds down at X. This quickly turns into neither does Y or Z. It’s then that I realize that people are calling us because they simply do not have any other option.
Why is it that in a nation that recently broke a record for the most food stamps distributed that so many people are still going hungry? How is it that in a republic that has voted to support the expansion of retiree pensions & healthcare, child healthcare, a form of universal healthcare for all, universal education through high school, generous funding for poor college students, disability funds, unemployment support, housing subsidies, and more that still so many are without proper food, housing, clothing, and education?
This is the same type of question that Richard Cornuelle began asking in the wake of the New Deal and Great Society programs. A classical liberal thinker with a deep concern for the downtrodden (he rejected the official “libertarian” label because he did not believe that they cared for the poor), Cornuelle rightly predicted that the spending of trillions on War on Poverty campaigns would be fruitless. He offered alternative ideas to battle poverty in his 1965 book, Reclaiming the American Dream: The Role of Private Individuals and Voluntary Associations. Described by George Gallup as the impetus for “the most dramatic shift in American thinking since the New Deal,” Reclaiming the American Dream argues for what Cornuelle described as the “Independent Sector”—a division of the economy separate from government and business alike.
While Cornuelle ‘s tome has some naïve moments (he excitedly write in one passage that the proper execution of the Independent Sector would eradicate poverty), he also has some harsh words for existing non-profits, even going as far as to say they are still in the “horse and buggy” days. He argues that the Independent Sector must be modernized (a problem still facing many non-profits today; people at my organization are coping with Java 6) in order to be on par with the government and business, two separate sectors that are motivated to stay current by multiple factors.
Cornuelle’s essential argument is that the Independent Sector must be built from the ground up. It must be independent of other economic sectors. It must be innovative. It requires the involvement of independent people who seek to see a better, healthier world. It requires the sort of previously-held tenacity and cooperation in the face of hardship that David Beito describes in From Mutual Aid to the Welfare State and The Voluntary City. In summation, the thriving of the independent sector requires the involvement of concerned citizens willing to use their skills for the communal—but not collective—good.
I have been purposely vague in discussing Cornuelle’s book. My hope is that you will pick up your own copy of Reclaiming the American Dream. I hope that you will consider why it was, as one reviewer described it, “dynamite between book covers.” But more importantly, I hope you will consider how his ideas have shaped the modern conservative and philanthropic movements, and how they will continue to shape and should guide efforts to revitalize the Independent Sector for the 21st century (my favorite was discussion of an alternative retirement for seniors that would lead them to be paid for being active rather than for being old).
Cornuelle died in 2011 without having seen his ideas truly enacted. For those who continue his work, the times in which we live must seem so bleak; the government continues its near monopolistic control of public relief at a breathtaking pace. However, hope for supporters of the Independent Sector also remains. In the wake of Hurricane Sandy, in which millions received federal dollars, pollsters discovered that Americans were most grateful for the support of their friends and neighbors—particularly those who had stepped up to help even when no bond existed prior to the disaster. This tale from the greatest natural disaster of the decade reminds us that the roots of the Independent Sector are present; now they just need someone who can garden them.