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Trump revived Andrew Jackson’s spoils system, which would undo America’s 138-year-old professional civil service

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Professor of Business Administration and of Public and International Affairs, University of Pittsburgh
Barry M. Mitnick does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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The federal government’s core civilian workforce has long been known for its professionalism. About 2.1 million nonpartisan career officials provide essential public services in such diverse areas as agriculture, national parks, defense, homeland security, environmental protection and veterans affairs.
To get the vast majority of these “competitive service” jobs – which are protected from easy firing – federal employees must demonstrate achievement in job-specific knowledge, skills and abilities superior to other applicants and, in some cases, pass an exam. In other words, the civil service is designed to be “merit-based.”
It wasn’t always so.
From Andrew Jackson until Theodore Roosevelt, much of the federal workforce was subject to change after every presidential election – and often did. Known as the spoils system, this pattern of political patronage, in which officeholders award allies with jobs in return for support, began to end in the late 19th century as citizens and politicians like Roosevelt grew fed up with its corruption, incompetence and inefficiency – and its role in the assassination of a president.
Less than two weeks before Election Day, Donald Trump signed an executive order that threatens to return the U.S. to a spoils system in which a large share of the federal government’s workforce could be fired for little or no reason – including a perceived lack of loyalty to the president.
While President Joe Biden appears likely to reverse the order, its effects may not be so easily undone. And he may have his own reasons for keeping it temporarily in place.
The government of the early republic was small, but the issue of whether civil servants should be chosen on the basis of patronage or skills was hotly debated.
Although George Washington and the five presidents who followed him certainly employed patronage, they emphasized merit when making appointments.
Washington wrote that relying on one’s personal relationship to the applicant would constitute “an absolute bar to preferment” and wanted those “as in my judgment shall be the best qualified to discharge the functions of the departments to which they shall be appointed.” He would not even appoint his own soldiers to government positions if they lacked the necessary qualifications.
That changed in 1829 when Andrew Jackson, the seventh president, entered the White House.
Jackson came to office as a reformer with a promise to end the dominance of elites and what he considered their corrupt policies. He believed that popular access to government jobs – and their frequent turnover through a four-year “rotation in office” – could serve ideals of democratic participation, regardless of one’s qualifications for a position.
As a result, at his inaugural reception on March 4, a huge crowd of office seekers crashed the reception. Jackson was “besieged by applicants” and “battalions of hopefuls,” all seeking government jobs.
Instead of preventing corruption from taking root, Jackson’s rotation policy became an opportunity for patronage – or rewarding supporters with the spoils of victory. He defended the practice by declaring: “If my personal friends are qualified and patriotic, why should I not be permitted to bestow a few offices on them?”
Besides possessing a lack of appropriate skills and commitment, office seekers were expected to pay “assessments” – a percentage of their salary ranging from 2% to 7% – to the party that appointed them.
Although Jackson replaced only about 10% of the federal workforce and 41% of presidential appointments, the practice increasingly became the norm as subsequent presidents fired as well as refused to reappoint ever-larger shares of the government.

The peak of the spoils system came under James Buchanan, who served from 1857 to 1861. He replaced virtually every federal worker at the end of their “rotation.” William L. Marcy, who was secretary of state under Buchanan’s predecessor and was the first to refer to patronage as “spoils,” wrote in 1857 that civil servants from his administration were being “hunted down like wild beasts.”
Even Abraham Lincoln, who followed Buchanan, made extensive use of the system, replacing at least 1,457 of the 1,639 officials then subject to presidential appointment. The number would have been higher but for the secession of Southern states, which put some federal officials out of his reach.
The tide began to turn in the late 1860s following public revelations that positions had been created requiring little or no work and other abuses, including illiterate appointees, and a congressional report about the success of civil service systems in Great Britain, China, France and Prussia.
In 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant asked Congress to take action, complaining, “The present system does not secure the best men, and often not even fit men, for public place.” Congress responded with legislation that authorized the president to use executive orders to prescribe regulations for the civil service. That power exists today, most recently exercised in Trump’s own order.
Grant established a Civil Service Commission that led to some reforms, but just two years later a hostile Congress cut off new funding, and Grant terminated the experiment in March 1875. The number of jobs potentially open to patronage continued to soar, doubling from 51,020 in 1871 to 100,020 in 1881.
But across the U.S., citizens were becoming disgusted by a government stuffed with the people known as “spoilsmen,” leading to a growing reform movement. The assassination of President James Garfield in 1881 by a deranged office seeker who felt Garfield had denied him the Paris diplomatic post he wanted pushed the movement over the edge.
Garfield’s murder was widely blamed on the spoils system. George William Curtis, editor of Harper’s Weekly and an advocate for reform, published cartoons lambasting the system and called it “a vast public evil.”
In early 1883, immediately after an election that led to sweeping gains for politicians in favor of reform, Congress passed the Pendleton Act. It created the Civil Service System of merit-based selection and promotion. The act banned “assessments,” implemented competitive exams and open competitions for jobs, and prevented civil servants from being fired for political reasons.
Roosevelt was appointed to the new commission that oversaw the system by President Benjamin Harrison in 1889 and quickly became its driving force – even as Harrison himself abused the spoils system, replacing 43,823 out of 58,623 postmasters, for example.
At first, the system covered just 10.5% of the federal workforce, but it was gradually expanded to cover most workers. Under Roosevelt, who became president in 1901 after William McKinley was assassinated, the number of covered employees finally exceeded those not covered in 1904 and soon reached almost two-thirds of all federal jobs. At its peak in the 1950s, the competitive civil service covered almost 90% of federal employees.
New York, where Roosevelt was an assemblyman, and Massachusetts were the first states to implement their own civil service systems. Although all states now have such systems in place at local, state or both levels, it was not until after 1940 that most states adopted a competitive civil service.
Trump’s executive order would mark a significant change.
The Oct. 21 order created a new category of the civil service workforce, known as “Schedule F,” which would include all currently protected employees in career positions that have a “confidential, policy-determining, policy-making or policy-advocating character.” Because the language is both vague and encompassing, it may apply to as many as hundreds of thousands of the 2.1 million federal civilian workers – potentially to every worker who has any discretion in giving advice or making decisions.
The first agency to report a list of covered workers, the Office of Management and Budget, identified 425 professionals – 88% of its employees – as transferable to Schedule F, which means they could be fired at will.
Although the order didn’t formally take effect until Jan. 19, some agencies had already taken actions consistent with it – including an apparent “purge” of career employees deemed insufficiently loyal to Trump. But the Trump administration was unable to fully implement Schedule F before Biden took over on Jan. 20.
Of course, Biden could quickly reverse the order – and there’s already a bipartisan push to forbid these transfers – but rehiring anyone who has been fired won’t be easy or immediate.
Furthermore, Trump had tried to “burrow” political appointees deep into the senior executive service, the top level of the civil service. The burrowing included the controversial appointment of Michael Ellis as general counsel of the National Security Agency. Senior executive service rules permit some political appointees to be converted to civil servants. This could protect them from easily being removed by Biden.
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Biden may want to remove civil servants considered Trump loyalists who may try to subvert his policies. If so, he’ll have to keep the executive order in place to expedite the process and convert those employees to the new Schedule F classification, which would allow him to remove them. But keeping and using Schedule F, even for a relatively brief period, challenges the most fundamental principles of the civil service.
Trump’s order and Biden’s dilemma show that Teddy Roosevelt’s work is still unfinished. If, on a whim, a president can undo over a century of reforms, then the civil service remains insufficiently insulated from politics and patronage. It may be time Congress passed a new law that permanently shields one of America’s proudest achievements from becoming another dysfunctional part of the U.S. government.
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What the $25 billion the biggest US donors gave in 2020 says about high-dollar charity today

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Associate Professor of Public Administration, Binghamton University, State University of New York
Assistant Professor of Nonprofit Leadership, Seattle University
Associate Professor of Public Policy and Public Administration, George Washington University
David Campbell is vice chair of the Conrad and Virginia Klee Foundation in Binghamton, New York.
Elizabeth J. Dale has received funding from the Ford Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation via Indiana University and The Giving USA Foundation for her research on philanthropy. The views expressed in this essay are strictly my own and do not reflect policy stances of Seattle University.
Jasmine McGinnis Johnson is a Visiting Fellow at Urban Institute, the Center on Nonprofits and Philanthropy.

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Editor’s note: According to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, the top 50 Americans who gave the most to charity in 2020 committed to giving a total of US$24.7 billion to hospitals, homeless shelters, universities, museums and more – a boost of roughly 54% from 2019 levels. David Campbell, Elizabeth Dale and Jasmine McGinnis Johnson, three scholars of philanthropy, assess what these gifts mean, the possible motivations behind them and what they hope to see in the future in terms of charitable giving in the United States.
Campbell: Pandemic. Pandemic. Pandemic. The share of giving that went to social service nonprofits, food banks and homelessness assistance groups rose sharply. At the same time, performing arts organizations, largely shut down as a result of the pandemic and starved of revenue from ticket sales, received more support from big donors in 2020 than in 2019, with charitable gifts and pledges to them increasing to $65 million from $51 million.
McGinnis Johnson: Likewise, Racial justice. Racial justice. Racial justice.
For example, basketball legend Michael Jordan declared that he would personally give at least $50 million to racial equity and education causes over the next decade, with his footwear and clothing company kicking in another $50 million. Also, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings and his wife Patty Quillan gave a total of $120 million divided into three equal gifts to Morehouse College, Spelman College and UNCF – the group previously called United Negro College Fund that pays for students to attend historically black colleges and universities. Neither Jordan nor Hastings and Quillan, who said their increased awareness about the country’s racial injustices and the deaths of Black people in police custody inspired them to give, made the Chronicle’s list of top donors in 2019.
These and other unusually large gifts taking aim at racial injustice, and other forms of social injustice (not counting HBCU donations), totaled $66 million in 2020. But I had anticipated that there would be even more of this giving by the biggest donors.

Dale: In particular, MacKenzie Scott – Jeff Bezos’ ex-wife – made many gifts to HBCUs. These donations included $50 million for Prairie View A&M University, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and Morgan State University. In addition to racial justice, her philanthropy has raised the profile of causes like civic engagement, community development and the need to address the medical debt crisis in the U.S. Scott was the second-largest donor for the year, after Bezos. Combined, their commitments totaled nearly $16 billion. Neither made the top 50 in 2019.
Until now, the ultra-rich haven’t typically supported causes like these. Instead, extremely wealthy donors have historically been more inclined to fund higher education and health care, largely with big donations to elite universities, hospitals and arts institutions like museums and operas.
The other aspect that strikes me is the “who” part of the list. There are many new faces: Eight of the 20 top donors didn’t make an appearance on the Philanthropy 50 list for their 2019 giving.

McGinnis Johnson: A total of about $14 billion of this giving went to foundations led by the givers themselves and donor-advised funds, which work somewhat like foundations in that donors set money aside for charity before they actually give those funds to nonprofits. When wealthy people set aside money this way, they receive tax benefits before giving those funds. In a troubling development, some foundations have begun to put some of their disbursed money, which was already designated for charity, into donor-advised funds rather than addressing today’s many urgent needs, such as alleviating hunger and staving off evictions amid a major economic crisis.
Dale: This list reminds me of the limits of philanthropy, especially with a problem as widespread as the COVID-19 pandemic. Even if you add all of the social service gifts together, including donations to food banks, efforts to help the homeless and gifts to pay off medical debt, it adds up to only about $700 million. Compared to the trillions of dollars in relief the government is providing individuals and small businesses for economic problems that began in 2020, you can see that philanthropy from the very wealthiest Americans doesn’t come close to meeting all of the nation’s needs.
One possible way Congress could encourage more donations is by increasing the share of assets that foundations must give away every year. A coalition of wealthy donors including Walt Disney Co. heiress Abigail Disney and at least two members of the Pritzker family – heirs to the Hyatt fortune – supports this change.

McGinnis Johnson: I think that major gifts in support of racial and social justice causes may continue. I also expect to see the emergence of new donors spurred on by these crises who can give in new and different ways. And I hope that more wealthy donors begin to pay more attention to leadership, by supporting organizations led by people of color.
Campbell: Donors like MacKenzie Scott and Susan Sandler – the heir to a fortune made in the home-mortgage business – and some foundations are going out of their way to invest in people, places and organizations that have long been ignored or marginalized.
Also, their public statements about their giving, along with Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey’s spreadsheet listing his donations, have raised the bar for transparency in philanthropy.
I believe these new approaches can engage the public in an ongoing debate about the best way to use charitable dollars to build a better world. The question is, will other wealthy donors follow their lead?
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New steps the government’s taking toward COVID-19 relief could help fight hunger

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Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Richmond
Tracy Roof does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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President Joe Biden has pledged to tackle hunger as part of his administration’s efforts to alleviate poverty.
“We cannot, will not let people go hungry,” Biden declared on his second full day in office, invoking the “values of our nation.”
One way his administration aims to accomplish this goal is by expanding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the country’s largest anti-hunger program. I’m researching this program, long known as food stamps but today referred to as SNAP, for an upcoming book. The program helps struggling families while boosting the economy during downturns.
As Biden’s presidency gets underway, I’m watching to see not only whether the government expands the amount of aid this program provides people in need today, but whether there are lasting changes to SNAP and other anti-poverty policies that could reduce hunger in the future.
Unlike the Trump administration, Biden’s team is eager to find ways to maximize the use of SNAP to fight poverty during the pandemic and beyond.
Former President Donald Trump criticized the large number of people who remained on SNAP after the last recession, which occurred partly because poverty rates remained high even as unemployment went down. Believing that the program discouraged work, Trump repeatedly tried but failed to limit who could get SNAP.

After the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the number of people enrolled in SNAP soared again. Spending on the program surged even more because the government temporarily let all beneficiaries get the maximum amount of benefits.
Government aid through SNAP totaled a record US$85.6 billion in the 12 months that ended Sept. 30, 2020. That money helped feed around 44 million people, up from 35 million a year earlier.
But until recently there was no extra help for the roughly 40% of the people who were already getting the maximum benefits because of their very low incomes. Congress changed that when it approved a 15% increase for all SNAP recipients as part of the December 2020 $900 billion relief package. That benefits boost started the following month.

Despite SNAP’s expansion and additional aid flowing to food banks from government assistance and many high-profile donations to food banks and food pantries by some of the richest Americans, hunger has remained a problem throughout the pandemic.
By January 2021, a government survey found that some 11% of adults, and more than 1 in 7 of all U.S. households with children, said they were having trouble getting enough to eat – well above pre-pandemic levels. The problem is even worse for people of color.
Along with the 15% increase in SNAP benefits Congress approved in December 2020, which initially was to last for six months, were changes to make it easier for college students and those on unemployment benefits to get SNAP.
Biden wants to offer Americans who face economic hardship additional help. He has proposed extending the SNAP increase for at least another three months, through September 2021. Further, he has pledged to work with Congress to tie benefit increases to the health of the economy and the people so that Congress would not have to take action for extra help to kick in.
If Congress adopted such an approach, I believe vulnerable families would no longer be at the mercy of the kind of political squabbling that has delayed additional help during the pandemic.
Biden also signed an executive order directing federal agencies to try to do more for the poorest families through SNAP. In addition, his administration is trying to make it easier for states to send more help to families with children who are missing free or reduced-price meals at school or who are too young to attend.
The proposed SNAP changes are among many temporary benefit increases Biden and others have recently outlined, such as in unemployment benefits and new tax credits for families with children.
Columbia University researchers estimate that a combination of Biden’s proposals could reduce poverty in 2021 by almost 30% and halve the number of U.S. children living in poverty. If successful, this could launch a longer-term transformation in anti-poverty policies.
Many advocates of policies that help the poor have long argued that SNAP benefits are too stingy to provide enough nutritious food for an adequate diet.
On average, people on SNAP use over three-fourths of their benefits by the middle of the month – even in a strong economy. As a result, many SNAP recipients run out of benefits and regularly turn to food banks. In fact, more than 40% of food bank clients are enrolled in SNAP.
Why don’t these benefits fill more gaps?
Technically, food stamp recipients are expected to spend 30% of their own income on food. If they have income, as most SNAP recipients do, their benefits are calculated by reducing the maximum benefit for their family size by 30% of the value of their income after deductions for things like child care. But many financially stressed families don’t feel they can afford to spend that much on food.
Another problem is how the maximum benefit is set. It is based on the cost of the Thrifty Food Plan, devised by the Department of Agriculture in 1975 as “a national standard for a nutritious diet at a minimal cost.”
Despite changes to reflect new official nutritional recommendations, the government has maintained the same inflation-adjusted cap on spending in place for decades. As a result, the plan relies on unreasonable and outdated assumptions that underestimate average meal costs, especially in areas with high food prices.
One of Biden’s executive orders instructs the USDA to carry out an until-now overlooked mandate that could fix this problem, potentially increasing the amount of SNAP benefits during good times and bad.
To be sure, it’s unclear what will happen with SNAP benefits.
Presidents have often used emergencies to make lasting policy changes, but big expansions in anti-poverty programs have historically been passed with large Democratic majorities in Congress as in the New Deal in the 1930s and the War on Poverty in the 1960s.
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Today, the Senate is evenly split, with Democrats wielding control through Vice President Kamala Harris’ vote in that chamber. The Democratic majority in the House is also narrow.
Just as Trump failed at his efforts to cut many anti-poverty programs, Biden may not succeed in expanding them. But his proposed changes reflect a big shift in how the government uses policies to help Americans in need.
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Mothers who earned straight A’s in high school manage the same number of employees as fathers who got failing grades

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Assistant Professor of Sociology, University of North Carolina – Charlotte
Assistant Professor of Sociology, University of British Columbia
The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.
Mothers who showed the most academic promise in high school have the same leadership opportunities as fathers who performed the worst, according to our new peer-reviewed study. That is, in their early-to-mid careers, mothers who got straight A’s end up overseeing a similar number of employees as men who got F’s.
To reach these conclusions, we used a U.S. national survey that since 1979 has tracked a group of baby boomers born from 1957 through 1964. We focused on the 5,000 or so participants for whom researchers obtained high school transcripts and then compared the data with their responses to career-focused surveys taken over an 11-year period from 1988 to 1998 – a period when most of them were in their 30s.
Overall, our results showed that men manage more employees than women regardless of their GPA. For participants without children, the leadership gap between men and women was fairly constant across GPA levels, with men managing about two to three workers more on average.
What was most interesting to us is what we learned when we focused only on parents. Fathers with 4.0 GPAs reported overseeing an average of 19 people, compared with 10 for childless men with similar grades and about five for fathers with a 1.0 or less. In contrast, the best-performing mothers managed fewer than five people, compared with seven for childless women with top GPAs and three for mothers with the worst grades.

In other words, becoming a parent boosts leadership opportunities for men while diminishing them for women. Even attaining a college or advanced degree had the same effect, helping fathers but doing little for mothers. Other research reveals that men have a faster route to leadership positions across occupations, including in stereotypically feminine fields such as human resources and health care.
Recent economics research has highlighted “lost Einsteins” – the really smart students from poor families who never become inventors because they don’t receive the same advantages and support that even low-achieving kids from rich families do.
The same can be said for women, whose talents have long been underutilized by corporate America. Our research showed that even the most talented and brightest women experience diminished leadership prospects on account of gender-related barriers, especially if they became mothers.
But the problem isn’t motherhood or fatherhood per se. Past research has shown it’s more about how society views mothers and fathers and the associated stereotypes that contribute to gendered outcomes. For example, fathers could be getting more leadership opportunities because employers stereotype them as better fits for positions that emphasize authority, long work hours and travel. Mothers, on the other hand, may see fewer chances because employers falsely believe they are less committed or competent.
Employers could help overcome this problem by reviewing how they evaluate workers and adopting fairer promotion practices that are more likely to recognize women’s talent. More family-friendly policies such as paid leave and subsidized child care could also help.
Given the limits of our sample, we do not know how our findings translate to younger groups, such as millennials. But given that progress toward equality in the workplace has slowed or even stalled on certain measures in recent decades, we believe it’s likely that the leadership prospects of academically gifted women haven’t improved much.
COVID-19 has harmed women’s employment and productivity more than men’s, particularly among parents because of a lack of child care support. We plan to conduct additional research to better understand how women’s leadership opportunities may have been affected by the pandemic.
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