Friday, February 18, 2011

Is there any hope for public anything?

Both at the federal and the state levels, the same questions I raised about the future of public higher education can be asked about the future of the entire public sphere.  With  the need for significant budget cuts and the anti-government views of most leading elected Republicans, it is not at all certain that the organizations we see as stalwarts of public life--schools, cultural organizations, arts organizations, social service providers--will continue to be vigorous. And if they do not, it is an open question whether our common lives will diminish with them.

There is a history here, one that we ought to attend to.  As recently as the 1960s government played a relatively small role in supporting third places and non-governmental organizations.  The public sphere was populated with some non-profits, but even more with a wide range of fraternal organizations, public houses, civic organizations, parks, etc. that received almost no federal funding and very limited state funding.

Most of those organizations have been in decline in the past 40 years.  And they have been replaced by a new breed of non-profits, distinguished both by their focus on a single issue, and by their receipt, in one way or another, of tax funds.  Those same non-profits have benefited from a more generous class of donors, some of whose gifts are driven by tax breaks.  The receipt of tax funds, the specialization in  particular issues, and the increased need to cultivate donors has led to a professionalized non-profit sector, one that employs a large number of people, and that relies on continually growing budgets to move its work forward.

The economic downturn and now, the thirst to cut government budgets, thus hurt the public sphere in three ways.  They undermine government funding for non-profits even while donors are less able to give, they endanger the jobs of a large number of professionals, and because the public sphere and the non-profit sector have become almost synonymous, they threaten the infrastructure of public life.

Of course many non-profits will survive, but those that do will rely ever more heavily either on a dedicated tax funding stream (as, for example, providers of drug treatment who contract with governments), or upon the largesse of a small group of rich donors.

This is not entirely a bad thing in the long run.  I expect that entrepreneurs will step in and find ways to run arts and culture organizations on a fee-for-service, not a donation basis.  The internet will replace the work of many employees in the non-profit sector (it is noteworthy, for example, that civil society organizations have played almost no role in the recent rebellions on Tunisia and Egypt.  Their organizational roles have been taken over by twitter and by ad-hoc on-the-ground decision-making).  And small-scale volunteer work will return to churches and evanescent neighborhood organizations.  But between now and the long run, the public sphere is in decline.

1 comment:

diane said...

I hold out hope for one public something: libraries! In the economic downturn, public libraries have seen increases in numbers of visitors, check outs and program attendance. During the very eras that saw a decline in the private fraternal orders, civic groups, etc, public libraries- as municipally and regionally supported entities full of paid professionals- thrived. Public libraries= the quintessential third places and the last hope for public something!