“The New Normal” is a phrase favored by pundits to describe the current economic and political condition of our nation. It features slow-to-no-growth, severe and ongoing budget woes at all levels of government, loss of public trust in our financial institutions, wage stagnation for the average American, and political gridlock. The idea is that these conditions are not just temporary; they constitute a new economic and social paradigm characterized by long-term uncertainty and increased difficulty for political leaders to get anything done. The term has caught on and is now also applied to the nonprofit sector. In that context, it invokes a future of difficult fundraising, dramatic cutbacks in government funding, and weakened public/political support—if not downright hostility—for many organizations, ranging from National Public Radio to Planned Parenthood.
I get it, but I have to ask: “What is so new about the New Normal?” Over the last generation, Wall Street has enjoyed booms and bubbles (before each went bust and burst), but the nonprofit sector’s constituents have never fully participated in the good times—though they have served as easy whipping boys during bad times. That’s why I think of the nonprofit version of our current economic condition as the New Abnormal. The situation prior to the last three years was not “normal” for working people. Throughout the past thirty years (I choose the Reagan Revolution of 1980 as a convenient starting point), nonprofits and their causes have been under steady attack. A no-taxes/no-services movement has made effective use of a wide variety of strategies. Federal block grants, state realignment schemes, “Just Say No” feel-good campaigns, right-to-work laws, demonization of regulation and taxation, and most recently the Tea Party’s questioning of the need for government itself, have successfully reduced support for spending on serious social concerns. Meanwhile, the tax code has increasingly supported the concentration of wealth among the few. This has been much more than a series of budget battles; it constitutes an all-out assault on the social contract established as far back as the New Deal. The War on Poverty has truly become The War on The Poor.
In the 1960s and 1970s America believed that the public’s sustained attention and the resources of a wealthy nation could combine to ameliorate—if not outright cure—disgraces like widespread urban decay and African American disenfranchisement. Then the 1980s ushered in an era of benign neglect and increasingly malign action. For more than thirty years now, our public debate has ducked and weaved like a punch-drunk boxer, avoiding the core challenges to our social contract—that simple yet essential idea that we are all in this American democratic experiment together. Today, the wealth of the top 400 Americans is equal to that of the bottom 150 million, yet our political leaders will not close loopholes that allow large corporations and the wealthy to escape most of the taxman’s bite. Instead, they defend a status quo in which a hedge fund manager who recently earned nearly $5 billion pays a lower tax rate than his driver or his children’s nanny.
The public debate on these issues has effectively shifted from the question “What kind of country do we want to live in and what shared sacrifices are necessary to get there?” to a narrower and self-defeating question around how much more can we weaken the tattered social safety net so that we can preserve the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy. Recently, the conversation has gone even further. Tea Party extremists are asking why we need a social safety net at all. Their mantra is the passionate but illogical belief that government action on any social problem equals a step toward totalitarianism.
Nonprofits are caught in this downward spiral of ideological extremism and cynical self-interest. The people they serve need more help than ever, but society provides less and less support to meet those needs. For every nonprofit cutting its services, there are a few dozen, a few hundred, or a few thousand people who are at risk of losing an essential service. They may have already lost their job, their home, and most of their hope. But that is not enough. The wealthy, now called “job-creators,” need more tax breaks, while unemployment insurance, mortgage debt restructuring, credit counseling, and a meager government promise of better access to health insurance (even if it is still provided by health giant insurance corporations) are thought only to create dependency, if not to deprive us of our freedom outright.
Is all of this new? Not really, it has been building since at least 1980. Some of the techniques used are older still, reminiscent of McCarthy’s big lie and slur campaigns of the 1950s. Is it normal, then? Not in my book. While we are settling into a new social contract—or perhaps it is the absence of one altogether—I can’t call it the New Normal. For nonprofits and the people they serve, for the poor, for the shrinking middle class, and for every American who still believes in the promise of a just society, it is the New Abnormal.
David La Piana is president of La Piana Consulting, a national firm that aids funders and nonprofits in addressing the strategic issues they face. His most recent book is The Nonprofit Strategy Revolution: Real Time Strategic Planning for a Rapid Response World. His article “Merging Wisely,” appeared in SSIR in February 2010.