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Philanthropy and Inequality: Giving for Social Change

December 28, 1999

You’re listening to Pacifica Radio’s Democracy Now!, broadcasting live from Wall Street, where the financial firms are giving themselves a record $13 billion in bonuses this year, up 18 percent from last year. And if you plan on ringing in the new millenium in a New York City restaurant, you would need a hefty Wall Street bonus to afford it. For example, dinner at one elegant restaurant, Chanterelle, was $100-$175 on December 31, 1994. This year it’s $2,500 per person. And the newly renovated Russian Tea Room is charging $500-$900 this year for a seven-course banquet meal, as opposed to $60 five years ago.

Well, the holiday season is a time for giving, and in his economic boom, the U.S. has more money to give than ever. Last year, Americans gave a record $175 billion, 90% going to groups that support causes of the rich and middle class. Charities are reporting that individuals are donating less to organizations that support the poor than they did in leaner times. And despite record profits, corporate philanthropy is falling behind personal giving.

This, as a report from the group United For a Fair Economy concludes that the economic boom of the 1990s has left Americans more divided at the turn of the millenium. Adjusting for inflation, average workers are earning less than they did 25 years ago. And over the past ten years, the number of billionaires in this country increased from 66 to 268, while the number of people living below the poverty level (about $13,000 for a family of three) increased from 31.5 million to 34.5 million. And the distribution of wealth, according to the report, has regressed to the inequality of the 1920s: the top 1 percent of households has more wealth than the bottom 95 percent combined.

But with baby boomers expected to inherit trillions from their parents, there are efforts to counter this trend through socially conscious giving. Some people of wealth are taking their cue from Ted Turner, who gave $1 billion to the UN, and Microsoft’s Bill Gates whose foundation is allocating $1 billion for high achieving students of color. But others say that it is monopolists like Gates who are the source of the problem.


  • Ruth Ann Harnisch, President of the Harnisch Family Foundation, and a board member of More Than Money, a member-supported nonprofit whose mission is to support people with wealth to significantly contribute their money and talents toward creating a more sustainable and just world.
  • Christopher Mogil, co-author of We Gave Away a Fortune, and Editor-in-chief of "More Than Money Journal."
  • Jeff Gates, President of the Shared Capitalism Institute, and author of The Ownership Solution. Gates is a former counsel to the Senate Finance Committee who spearheaded legislation encouraging employee stock ownership plans. He is an advocate of "inclusive corporations."

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