Response: Why Scrooge McDuck Has a Vault Full of Gold

Quotes from Ken Stern’s “Why the Rich Don’t Give” (The Atlantic, April 2013)

Could it be that the isolation of wealthy Americans from those in need is a cause of their relative stinginess?

What Stern is suggesting here is based on 2011 statistics that found that while the top 20% of earners in America gave 1.3% of their income, the bottom 20% gave 3.2, despite the fact that they could less afford to do so, and that they got fewer of the tax-break benefits involved in doing so, as “they do not itemize deductions on their income-tax returns.” Scrooge McDuck, of Duck Tales fame, walled himself off from the world and swam in a vault filled with money, and what got him to invest it was his human connection to nephews Huey, Dewey, and Louie: in other words, being exposed to those of a different social class changed him. You’ve heard this story time and again, in Annie for instance, and the truth is that the rich aren’t unwilling to donate: they’re just often too insulated from the “real world” (look at Mitt Romney’s robotic and naive comments during this past election season) to understand the needs of those so much further down the ladder.

Wealth affects not only how much money is given but to whom it is given. The poor tend to give to religious organizations and social-service charities, while the wealthy prefer to support colleges and universities, arts organizations, and museums.

As somebody who considers themselves invested in the arts, I can’t necessarily complain about the large endowments that allow scholarships, reduced ticket prices, and special events within this community, and yet I think the statistics Stern cites are abhorrent: “Of the 50 largest individual gifts to public charities in 2012, 34 went to education institutions, the vast majority of them colleges and universities, like Harvard, Columbia, and Berkley, that cater to the nation’s and the world’s elite.” Money follows money, and because this is the world that the rich are all-too often exposed to, this is often where their money goes–this and, say, medical research, which is often less of a donation than a savvy investment in those seeking to prolong or enhance the quality of their own lives. Individually, I can understand wanting to donate to an elite prep school that you (or a relative) might someday attempt to get their children into, but collectively, these actions–while generous–are also selfish and shortsighted, and give light to one of the biggest lies out there.

Underlying our charity system–and our tax code–is the premise that individuals will make better decisions regarding social investments than will our representative government.

But based on these statistics, that simply isn’t true: these donations aren’t trickling down to those who really need them, and they aren’t doing a more effective job than the government’s budget-challenged social-works projects. After all, those who fly in private airplanes have little need to improve the safety of our highway system; those who eat at upscale restaurants care little if the quality of produce at your local supermarket has been checked (or if food stamps are distributed to those who could not otherwise afford basic comestibles); and those who attend private schools may not understand just how deplorable the conditions in certain public schools are getting. You can’t blame the wealthy for failing to fix a problem they remain blissfully unaware of, even if some of them seem to go out of their way to remain ignorant or in denial . . . but if we can’t reform our charitable tax-deductions so as to put that money where those with more information understand that it needs to go, perhaps we should make more of an effort to make sure the rich really understand how much good their money could do right here in our concrete backyards and lead-lined schools. Let’s sic Huey, Dewey, and Louie on ’em.

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