The Political Economy of the Social Question: Philanthropic Foundations, Industrial Capitalism, and Public Welfare

Elizabeth Harmon

In this presentation, I use the United States Industrial Relations Commission’s investigation of philanthropic foundations (1912-1915) as a case study to consider how philanthropic foundations shaped Progressive-Era debates about the social question. Industrial titans, government officials, social workers, and labor leaders defined these debates as they questioned the desired relationship between labor and capital, and foundations became the ground on which these debates played out as the nation’s wealthiest citizens experimented in using private capital for the public good. As the nation’s first philanthropic foundations enjoyed unprecedented corporate privileges that allowed them to use private capital to define and promote social welfare initiatives, members of the United States Commission on Industrial Relations attempted to prove that these new corporate bodies sought “benevolent control” in the interest of capital. By 1916, members of the Commission advocated for increased federal regulation of foundations as well as increased federal spending on social welfare to counter the influence of philanthropic foundations. Examining this debate allows us to learn more about how these policy recommendations set the scene for the increased separation of social welfare initiatives undertaken by business, government, and nonprofit organizations throughout the twentieth century.