Philanthropy’s Desertion: You Just Can’t Count on the Rich

moneyNew Orleans      As Lilliputians living in the land of the giant rich 1%, it is hard to avoid the heavy helpings of bad news coming in daily about how their habits and highly selective generosity imperils us everywhere, especially because we also live in a world dominated by neo-liberalism that has too often ceded the responsibilities of the state to private and personal interests. Here’s the emerging lesson, as you might have already guessed: when we come knocking, no one is hearing us, and no one is home.

Recently, there was yet another report establishing that with the increasing concentration of wealth, even more of the burden of giving is falling towards those with lower incomes. The percentage of giving by the rich has decreased almost 1%, while the percentage of total income donated by lower income families has increased by more than 1%.

A professor at Stanford noted that inequities of wealth are showing up in local philanthropic fundraising, which is of course unregulated and tax-deductible for donors, mirroring the growth of the 1% with money raised for schools attended by their own children at the expense of efforts on a broader basis to get public dollars to be enough for all kids. In other words they are giving, but only to the public schools where their own children are going, self-interest being what it is and has always been. This translates into a new gym for them, and broken glass in the playgrounds across the street from the school for us, pottery and dance classes for them, and police in the hallways for us, and so on. Others argue that we should shut out mouths, at least they are donating to public schools, since the rich, unlike the rest of us, retain the threat of exit and can move their money and children over to private or parochial schools, if they hadn’t already.

Even the desperate Ebola crisis in lower income countries in West Africa like Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone where groups like Doctors without Borders have been heroes, leading the way for even governmental responses, has revealed the gaps in philanthropic response compared to other global crises. At one level groups are not asking, claiming no boots on the ground in some cases, but that was also true in Katrina and other disasters. One worries that part of the issue is race and a disinterest in Africa. One or two of the big boys have stepped up, Mark Zuckerman and his wife for example, who I have to admit have funded public institutions in need before like the Newark school system, though wrongheadedly perhaps in that case, but for the most part, Ebola and West Africa doesn’t interest the rich, so thank goodness the military still knows how to pitch tents for field hospitals.

I read an interesting piece the other day on something called philanthropy-capitalism in connection with the political scene in Vancouver, British Columbia. The argument was strained, but the phrase was interesting, largely because the proof seems clear that in reality, despite what many might have hoped, it just doesn’t exist.

And, that spells trouble for all of us living in the shadow of the rich and under the rule of neoliberalism, because the shrinking and privatization of the state at every level, means there’s no safety net anywhere and no calvary will be coming over the mountain to save us. A report from Ceres, a new sustainability research outfit, finds that in weather-related disasters the level of insurance coverage is plummeting. Where 45% of the losses from Hurricane Katrina were covered, only a bit over a 30% of Hurricane Sandy were covered. Future disasters couldn’t depend on insurance or massive donations to help, leaving more and more communities stuck with only beleaguered public and private resources.

Despite some of the conservative, libertarian, and Republican rhetoric, the facts are rolling in again everywhere we look that we simply can’t count on the rich to save us. They’ve concentrated the wealth, and have different plans and interests than the rest of us or in the rest of us.

Neoliberalism crashes and burns at the point we all realize there is no Plan B, and once again the only justice is just us.