Mark Zuckerberg is already the wealthiest person in the world under 30. Now he, along with his wife Priscilla Chan, is also the most charitable giver of 2013. The two in December donated 18 million shares of Facebook stock, worth just under an astounding $1 billion, to the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, which “advances innovative philanthropic solutions to challenging problems, engaging donors to make our region and world a better place for all,” according to the foundation’s website.
What’s notable about this story is not so much the very generous amount Zuckerberg gave away, but that, of the year’s other large donations — those that exceeded $100 million — only Zuckerberg’s contribution has the potential to directly help those in poverty. Most of the remaining donations were made to Ivy League universities and prestigious medical schools:
To be sure, several of these donations are earmarked for worthy causes that might one day improve all of our lives, including cancer and stem-cell research. Others simply betray the donor’s desire to take advantage of the tax deduction. Johnson and Munger’s gifts are set aside for student housing. Ross’ is mostly for athletics. Schwarzman’s is intended for graduate student scholarships.
Many prominent conservatives, from Rep. Michele Bachmann (MN) to Sen. Rand Paul (KY), argue that private charity, rather than social welfare, should be the main instrument that helps feed and house the poor. But the examples above reveal this rosy attitude to have no grounding in reality whatsoever. When the ultra-wealthy choose to donate, their gifts typically benefit other wealthy people. Call it “trickle-down charity.” A study conducted last year by the Congressional Budget Office, in fact, showed that, on average, only one-third of all donations are made to the poor. The rest largely goes to universities, museums, and other elite, fashionable institutions.
This trend of making charitable contributions to the wealthy is not limited to the year 2013. Last April, The Atlantic reported that of the 50 largest donations made in 2012, not one “went to a social-service organization or to a charity that principally serves the poor and the dispossessed.”
So who contributes to the hungry and homeless, if not the rich? Who are the givers that Bachmann and Paul claim will pick up the slack now that SNAP benefits have been reduced and unemployment insurance cut? The answer is that, just as the wealthy tend to help the wealthy, the poor help the poor, donating almost exclusively to social-service organizations and religious institutions. And whereas the rich give roughly 1.3 percent of their annual income, the poor trump this generosity by giving about 3.2 percent.
Whatever the percentage, though, the nation’s poorest can’t possibly meet the needs of hungry families. With SNAP benefits trimmed, unemployment insurance slashed, and the wealthiest Americans donating only to Ivy League schools, both social welfare and charity have failed to help struggling individuals.
I will conclude with the words of Ross Fraser, director of media relations for Feeding America, the U.S.’s largest food charity:
No charity in the history of the planet could come up with the $80 billion [needed] for SNAP. It doesn’t make sense to talk about charity alone helping the hungry. It’d be like saying, why not let the military rely on charitable contributions.