THE DOWNSIDE OF PHILANTHROPY

Philanthropy, particularly at this time of year, is typically viewed as the ideal expression of caring for others and contributing to amelioration of social problems. However, philanthropy, particularly when tax-subsidized and done by the super-rich, has a significant downside.

Philanthropy in the U.S. is subsidized for those who itemize deductions on their income tax returns. Deducting charitable donations from taxable income means that the donation costs the donor less than its full amount. For a high-income tax payer paying roughly 40% of income in taxes, the donation only costs 60 cents for every dollar donated. For a lower-income taxpayer paying a 15% tax rate, a donation costs 85 cents for every dollar donated. Furthermore, it’s primarily high-income taxpayers and home owners who itemize deductions. So, both of these factors skew the financial benefits of philanthropy to those with high incomes and provide lower or no benefit to those with lower incomes.

Therefore, our current system of tax-subsidized philanthropy favors the giving preferences of the wealthy over those of low income or poor people. This problem was exacerbated by the 2017 tax cut. It raised the standard deduction for income tax calculation, which means that only the top 10% or so of incomes will still find it worthwhile to itemized deductions. Therefore, our tax system will now subsidize the philanthropy of only the top 10%.

Poor and middle-class people give away as high a percentage of their incomes as the wealthy, which suggests that the tax subsidies for philanthropy are rewarding the wealthy for behavior they would most likely engage in anyway. Charitable activities have occurred for centuries, but we have provided tax benefits for them only for the last 100 years. Therefore, these tax subsidies may well just be a benefit, a pat on the back, for high income people. If this is the case, it makes no sense to give away the tax revenue or to allow the wealthy to avoid paying their fair share in taxes by giving them a tax break for their charitable giving. [1]

Because of the growth of income and wealth inequality, and the huge amounts of money the super-rich can easily afford to give away, increasingly the philanthropic preferences of the wealthy are shaping our society. However, the giving preferences of the wealthy do not reflect the philanthropic preferences of the rest of society. [2]

Rob Reich, the author of “Just Giving,” would prefer to see society pursue democratically identified goals rather than private projects selected by wealthy philanthropists. The big splash that big philanthropy makes, such as Amazon’s Bezos’s recent announcement of a $2 billion commitment to address homelessness and improve early childhood education, distracts us from crafting policy solutions that will systematically address problems and help everyone who is facing a challenge rather than the subset who fall within the purview of a philanthropic project.

When the super-rich decide which institutions to support (e.g., universities, museums, hospitals) and which social problems to tackle (e.g., homelessness in the U.S., hunger and health in poor countries), they are usurping the role of public decision-making and priority setting that should be done by democratically run organizations, particularly governments. [3]

Charitable donations have been increasing since the 2008 recession, exceeding $400 billion for the first time in 2017. However, fewer households are giving, dropping from 66% in 2000 to 55% in 2014. While Giving Tuesday this year set a record with $380 million raised from 4 million individuals (an average of about $100 each), this represents only 0.1% (one tenth of one percent or one thousandth of overall giving).

Non-profit organizations are relying on fewer, larger donations. This means their support is less reliable from year to year and that they may tweak their missions to fit the interests of large donors. Overall, it means the favored institutions, causes, and projects of the wealthy are funded, while others struggle to survive. For example, it may mean that there is one awesome charter school for a hundred or so children, but that quality public education for all gets left behind.

Large-scale philanthropy can cause public organizations, such as public schools, to alter policies and procedures to qualify for philanthropic funding. For example, billionaire Bill Gates’s foundation’s grants for public schools have pushed school systems and states to adopt the Common Core learning standards and to internally subdivide schools into “schools-within-a-school” in accordance with grant requirements.

Super-sized philanthropy can’t replace broad-based public programs and investments that improve overall public well-being. An irony is that the super-rich may oppose public policies that would address issues they tackle through their philanthropy. The most dramatic and recent example is that of Amazon’s Bezos. He announced $2 billion in philanthropy to tackle homelessness and early education, but vehemently opposed, successfully, a per person tax on employment in Seattle to address the growing homelessness there. [4] Seattle’s homelessness problem is exacerbated by escalating housing prices driven in significant part by the need for housing for the growing number of Amazon employees in the Seattle area.

A more equitable and democratic system would stop providing a tax benefit for the philanthropy of the rich and more fairly tax the high incomes and wealth of individuals and corporations. The increased public revenue could be used to broadly and equitably improve societal well-being. For example, if we had increased the minimum wage to keep up with inflation and productivity since the 1960s, if we had reduced executive salaries and shareholder rewards in order to benefit employees, and if we provided affordable, quality health care for all, maybe we wouldn’t need super-sized philanthropy to help people afford a place to live or child care.

Charitable giving is not a bad thing, although giving of one’s time can be as valuable and more rewarding than giving money. However, our current system of tax-subsidized charitable giving and super-sized philanthropy based on great disparities in wealth is not good for democracy nor the best way to maximize social welfare.

[1]      Ortiz, A., 12/2/18, “The price of philanthropy,” The Boston Globe (This article is an interview with Rob Reich, the author of the new book “Just Giving.”)

[2]      Ortiz, A., 12/2/18, see above

[3]      Loth, R., 12/10/18, “We can’t privatize our way out of poverty,” The Boston Globe

[4]      Loth, R., 12/10/18, see above

Advertisements

Comments and discussion are encouraged

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: