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v2.1 Reference

Private Wealth and Public Life

Foundation Philanthropy and the Reshaping of American Social Policy from the Progressive Era to the New Deal

In Private Wealth and Public Life, historian Judith Sealander analyzes the role played by private philanthropic foundations in shaping public policy during the early years of this century. Focusing on foundation-sponsored attempts to influence policy in the areas of education, social welfare, and public health, she addresses significant misunderstandings about the place of philanthropic foundations in American life.

Between 1903 and 1932, fewer than a dozen philanthropic organizations controlled most of the hundreds of millions of dollars given to various causes. Among these, Sealander finds, seven foundations attempted to influence public social policy in significant ways—four were Rockefeller philanthropies, joined later by the Russell Sage, Rosenwald, and Commonwealth Fund foundations. Challenging the extreme views of foundations either as benevolent forces for social change or powerful threats to democracy, Sealander offers a more subtle understanding of foundations as important players in a complex political environment. The huge financial resources of some foundations bought access, she argues, but never complete control. Occasionally a foundation's agenda became public policy; often it did not. Whatever the results, the foundations and their efforts spurred the emergence of an American state with a significantly expanded social-policy-making role.

Drawing on a wealth of archival materials, much of it unavailable or overlooked until now, Sealander examines issues that remain central to American political life. Her topics include vocational education policy, parent education, juvenile delinquency, mothers' pensions and public aid to impoverished children, anti-prostitution efforts, sex research, and publicly funded recreation. "Foundation philanthropy's legacy for domestic social policy," she writes, "raises a point that should be emphasized repeatedly by students of the policy process: Rarely is just one entity a policy's sole author; almost always policies in place produced unintended consequences."

About the Author

Judith Sealander is professor of history at Bowling Green State University. She is the author of As Minority Becomes Majority: Federal Reaction to the Phenomenon of Women in the Work Force, 1920-1963 and "Grand Plans": Business Progressivism and Social Change in the Ohio Miami Valley, 1890-1929, and co-author of Women of Valor: The Struggle against the Great Depression as Told in Their Own Life Stories.


[Sealander] not only adds considerably to the history of philanthropy but enriches the historical understanding of the Progressive era.

- Michael S. Mayer - American Historical Review


Makes a significant contribution to the field of philanthropic studies and the history of the United States in the twentieth century. The book is also a potent act of demystification, one that cuts nicely through the layered myths still surrounding the story of the foundations of American life. And it is as well a trenchant criticism of the 'tyranny' of the social sciences in recent thinking about philanthropy.

- Guy Alchon, University of Delaware

Makes important contributions both to the history of American philanthropy and to specific controversies in the history of social work and state-society relations. I learned much that I hadn't known about foundation involvement in the areas of child welfare, sex education, physical education, and the promotion of organized play.

- Ellis Hawley, University of Iowa
Johns Hopkins University Press
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9780801854606 : private-wealth-and-public-life-sealander
368 Pages
$53.00 USD

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