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Reinventing Charity

June 24, 1999 [ Printer-friendly version ]

Remember back when America used to be a simpler place? You know, back in the '80s, when you could go to the movies for $4 and get on the Forbes 400 List with a mere $150 million. Now, the poorest of the very rich -- the 400th-place man -- is worth $1.2 billion. And last year CEO salaries rose 36 percent, while white-collar incomes rose 3.9 percent and blue-collar incomes 2.7 percent. Another way to look at it is that CEOs now make 442 percent more than they did in 1990 at the end of the Decade of Greed. And this while 35 million people live below the poverty line, including 20 percent of the nation's children.

A nation with a super class whose incomes go up by nearly 500 percent a decade is no longer indivisible. In fact, it is destabilizing to a democracy to allow such a gulf to exist. If the rich do not address this voluntarily, someone will decide to address it for them through income redistribution -- higher marginal tax rates or even income caps.

It is not just a matter of the wealthy giving away more of their wealth. It is a matter of what they are giving it to. Take Slate magazine's list of the "60 largest American personal charitable contributions" for the first quarter of 1999. No. 1 is Audrey Jones Beck, who gave 47 Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, estimated at more than $80 million, to the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. Now I'm sure that's very nice for the museum, which will name its new building the Audrey Jones Beck Building. Donating paintings is a great -- as the fund-raisers call it -- "naming opportunity." But it certainly is not charitable giving in the Biblical sense of giving to the least among us, nor is it probably what Slate had in mind by starting its Forbes counter-list.

It is time to start deconstructing charitable giving and stop defining it as any tax-deductible contribution to any old 501(c)3. A look at the top givers on the Slate list reveals that most of the major gifts have nothing to do with redressing the huge imbalances between those who are getting richer every year and those who are just getting by or falling behind. In fact, a lot of the gifts only serve to make the world of the super-rich just a little nicer.

Domino's Pizza founder Thomas Monaghan gave $50 million to create a Roman Catholic law school. Investor Henry Tippie gave $30 million to the University of Iowa. Film producer Walter Kline gave his movie and videotape archives, estimated at $25 million, to the North Carolina School of the Arts. Bill Gates gave $20 million to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Gates and Tippie will soon be joining Mrs. Beck with their very own buildings.

"Elites," Harvard sociologist Francie Ostrower writes in her book "Why the Wealthy Give," "take philanthropy and adapt it into an entire way of life that serves as a vehicle for the cultural and social life of their class." To reverse these self-referential patterns of giving is going to take some heavy lifting. It's going to take political leaders dropping the pretense that all is well and stressing, as Housing and Urban Development Secretary Andrew Cuomo did earlier this month, that "the good news is getting better, and the bad news is getting worse." It's going to take political courage to eliminate corporate welfare. And it's going to take creative giving that addresses society's pressing needs rather than the giver's personal interests.

Compare, for example, two gifts on the Slate 60 as though they exemplified equal public virtue. Robert G. Mondavi, chairman of the Robert Mondavi winery, gave $20 million to create the American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts in his hometown of Napa, Calif. Meanwhile, Ron Burkle, Ted Forstmann and John Walton gave $30 million to the Children's Scholarship Fund for low-income children trapped in dysfunctional schools. I'm sorry, but these two gifts do not even belong in the same category. And yet Slate -- and the IRS -- treat them as equivalent.

If we cannot encourage the wealthy to give to the poor out of the impulse of their hearts or their concern for a stable democracy, we'll just have to shame them into doing the right thing. What if corporations and individuals who can afford it were expected as a matter of course to tithe -- to give 10 percent of their income to those most in need? (Last year, corporations gave 1 percent of pre-tax earnings.)

And what if political campaigns led the way? Bill Bradley says that his "focus is on 15 million children who are poor in America." George W. Bush says that he is running to make sure that "no one is left behind." So let them ask everyone who contributes to their campaigns to donate 10 percent to a poverty-fighting group of their choice. If they don't, the campaigns should just take 10 percent off the top and give it to those Bush has termed "the armies of compassion."

Which of our Bible-quoting presidential candidates and which of our Forbes 400 billionaires will start putting in practice the Bible's admonition: "From whom much is given, from him that much more shall be expected"?

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