Monday, February 18, 2008

The New American Philanthropy

"The real philanthropists in our society are the people who work for less than they can actually live on, because they are giving of their time and their energy and their talents all of the time...they're giving to you."

-Barbara Ehrenreich, from the 2005
Lewis Lapham film The American Ruling Class

The Merriam Webster dictionary defines philanthropy as: "goodwill to fellow men; especially: active effort to promote human welfare; a philanthropic act or gift; an organization distributing or supported by philanthropic funds." American society generally tends to conceptualize these acts as those being carried out by individuals or organizations of ample means for the benefit of those who's means are more modest, if not meager. When watching public television, for instance, viewers are reminded that these programs are being provided for, in part, by the generous contributions of the well endowed for the betterment of the society at large. The same is very often the case when one visits a museum, a library, or a homeless shelter. Apart from serving their primary roles, these edifices serve also as monuments to the charity of a select few; the often invisible benefactors whose generosity is preserved as permanent testimony towards their legacies.
There is, however, a much more prevalent and much less lauded form of philanthropy taking place in America every day. As Barbra Ehrenreich points out, those of meager means give charitably of themselves every single day. This theory is both relevant and tangible, in that the current economic climate of the United States points to a historic concentration of wealth at the very upper echelons of society, coinciding with record amounts of charitable giving taking place. All of this sounds like it debunks Ehernreichs assertion of who the true philanthropists are, but the numbers deserve a closer look: large scale philanthropy is being dominated by the very few of the very few. Most notably, Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have combined to set the new high watermark for charitable giving. While Gates and Buffett are certainly not to be criticized (and should, of course, be highly commended), their unprecedented generosity has most definitely skewered philanthropic statistics.
In 2006, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation had an endowment of $34.6 billion. According to, to maintain its status as a charitable foundation, it must donate at least 5% of its assets each year. Considering the tax advantages to be gained by allotting such a large amount of wealth towards philanthropic means, the Foundation is mutually beneficial. This begs the question: What of Ehrenreich's "real philanthropists"? What advantages are afforded them in this current economic environment, where the gap between rich and poor grows at an ever increasing rate?
In his 2007 book, The Conscience of a Liberal, Paul Krugman makes an argument for the return to a New Deal - era Federal Government. Among the basis of his argument are the need for universal health coverage, and more topically, the need to eliminate the enormous disparities between the rich and the poor. Krugman argues, effectively, that the Bush tax cuts severely undermine the integrity of our society by propagating such disparities through encoding them into our laws. Krugman, and many others, argue not only for a repeal of Bush's tax cuts, but a renewed emphasis on the increased taxation of the super wealthy. Such tax codes were prevalent during the New Deal era of the 1930s and 1940s, and carried through to the prosperous years of the post World War II economic boom.
While certainly effective, measures such as these, as well as most others designed to more evenly distribute wealth among the population, focus solely on the wealthy. Is there a way, perhaps, to come at this issue from both ends of the spectrum? Perhaps by framing the task within this new parameter of philanthropy, the concentration of wealth can begin to move down the demographic scale and become more in line with the make up of the country’s population.
Proponents of the Bush tax cuts, and similar programs with duplicitously marketed agendas, point to broad scale tax relief, and the fact that "everyone" benefits from these measures. Taking the country's recent economic performance into account, one wonders how much longer such proponents will be able to say so with a straight face. Perhaps a movement in the opposite direction is needed. Perhaps Americans can recognize who it is among them that truly give. Maybe some Americans will recognize that federal assistance programs are not enough to help those that are truly in need, that the definition of poverty, both ideologically and mathematically, is sorely outdated.
Too long have the poor in this society gone unheralded and unaccounted for. Too long have the actions on their behalf been unsuccessful. Too long has the true value of an individual been hidden behind the dollar sign. In the past, it has taken truly tragic events to help society to define who its heroes truly are, yet this definition is incomplete. Society must act now so that the task does not fall to further tragedies to complete this definition.

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