Published in the December 5, 2014 Noozhawk.
“The rich are different,” F. Scott Fitzgerald observed to Ernest Hemingway. “Yes,” Hemingway replied. “They’ve got more money.”
In fact and in fiction, many have chronicled how the rich — particularly the ultra-rich who inherited great wealth — are different from the rest of us: Some have a sense of entitlement, embodied by the Bush family or the arrogant, ruthless Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby; others have a sense of noblesse oblige, personified by the Kennedys. According to some, the rich tend to see selfishness as a virtue.
Some studies have found a definite correlation between wealth and unethical behavior. Others have found the wealthy lack empathy. (In one study, people of various economic backgrounds were shown pictures of starving children. Wealthy people tended to have a less-emotional response than poor and middle-class subjects.)
But if there is one especially striking example of what sets the rich apart from everyone else, it is in their penuriousness: When it comes to giving to charity, the rich, despite having gotten considerably richer over the past generation and thus having more to give, are giving less to charitable causes than those who are far below them on the income ladder. The wealthier people get, it appears, they less they want to share that wealth with others. And when it comes to helping the truly needy, the rich take the attitude of Marie Antoinette: The poor can just eat cake.
No one disputes anymore that inequality in America is bad and getting worse. The wealthiest 0.01 percent of Americans now have more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined. The top 1 percent receive 20 percent of the nation’s income. During the so-called recovery, the net worth of the top 7 percent of the nation’s households rose by 28 percent, while the net worth of the other 93 percent declined.
Even as their income rises, the amount of taxes paid by the wealthy goes in the other direction. Twenty years ago, the richest paid an average of 30 percent of their income in taxes; today, after the Bush-era tax cuts, that number has fallen to 20 percent.
But while the rich get ever-richer, the poor get ever-poorer: The earnings of the bottom 90 percent fell, adjusted for inflation, from 2010 to 2013, with those near the very bottom dropping the most. Such income inequality hasn’t been seen in the land of opportunity in 100 years. And it shows no sign of abating.
Apologists for this extreme income disparity, with no logical means of justifying it, are reduced to trying to squelch the discussion altogether by name calling: People who broach this subject are socialists, Marxists, communists who want to wage class warfare. But puerile name calling can’t hide the truth: Not only are the rich getting richer, not only are the rich not paying their fair share in taxes, they are also not inclined toward helping others, and this is shown with their Scrooge-like attitude when it comes to giving to charity.
In 2011, the top 20 percent income earners (who now control 80 percent of the country’s wealth) gave less than one-half as much percentage wise to charity as the bottom 20 percent (1.3 percent for the wealthy as opposed to 3.2 percent for the poor). In 2012, those at the top gave 5 percent less than they did in 2006, despite the fact that their incomes were going up at the same time. But those earning less than $100,000 per year gave 5 percent more in 2012 than they did in 2006, even though their incomes were going down. And the very poor — those earning less than $25,000 per year — increased their giving by 17 percent! This increase in giving by the poorest among us is all the more remarkable when you consider that giving to charity is not a tax write-off for poor people, who as a rule do not itemize deductions.
Overall, for 2006-12, giving by those earning $100,000 to $200,000 a year decreased by 3.3 percent, and for those earning more than $200,000 it declined even more, by 4.5 percent.
But this isn’t all there is to the story. The attitude of the very wealthy toward charity is revealed not only by how little they give but by what they give their money to when they can be persuaded to open their wallets.
While the poor tend to give to social service charities — food banks and homeless shelters — the wealthy give to universities, museums and arts organizations. Of the 50 largest gifts made to charities in 2012, 34 went to educational institutions, primarily to Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Berkeley — the universities where, incidentally, the wealthy send their progeny to be educated. Not a single one of these donations went to a social service organization or a charity that focuses on the poor and the hungry. Not one. More gifts from the wealthy went to elite prep schools — where, once again, the rich send their offspring — than went to United Way or the Salvation Army. Feeding America, which focuses exclusively on helping the poor get enough to eat, received not one cent.
Why is there such a disconnect between the wealthy and the rest of us when it comes to helping the less fortunate? Theories abound. One has it that poor and middle-class people have learned to depend on others for survival in ways the wealthy never consider, so they have “pro-social” behaviors. Rich people are “more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people.” The runaway inequality that began in the Ronald Reagan era has led to a “pulling away” of the wealthy from the “other 98 percent” of American society. The rich no longer feel any connection to the rest of us, but only to their own insular group, and see no reason to contribute to the common good.
“Mankind was my business,” Marley’s ghost says when it visits Scrooge on Christmas Eve. “The common welfare was my business.”
If the rich are different, it appears one way that difference shows itself is in their tendency emulate Scrooge and say, “Bah, humbug,” when it comes to thinking of others and helping the poor.
Mark James Miller, President, Part-Time Faculty Association of Allan Hancock College, CFT Local 6185, Santa Maria, CA