OPW: Ariana Huffington on Charity & Poverty

This week’s quote is from Ariana Huffington’s 2004 book, Fanatics and Fools: The Game Plan for Winning Back America. I concede that I’ve never read it, but I found the quote while wondering if charity alone could ever make up for all the inequalities inherent in the world’s current situation.

I have no greater heroes than the men and women who are working up close and personal–sometimes wrenchingly so–to turn lives around. But they will be the first to tell you that even if they never slept, they would never on their own be able to turn around the tragic realities that surround us–including the fact that America has more homeless children today than at any time since the Great Depression. The bottom line is that the task of overcoming poverty is too monumental to be achieved without the raw power of government appropriations.

Yet programs that help the poor are all too often the first to be scaled back when self-styled “compassionate conservatives” take office–whether in George Bush’s America, where the House passed a bill requiring working mothers on welfare to work forty rather than thirty hours a week to qualify for assistance, or in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s California, where the very first spending cut announced by the new governor was a freeze on cost-of-living adjustments for welfare recipients.

During the recall campaign, Schwarzenegger was asked if he trusted the private sector. “Oh, absolutely,” he replied. Although my faith was never that unwavering, I too once believed that the private sector–especially Republican multimillionaires who talk incessantly about less government–would rise to the occasion and provide the funding needed to replicate and sustain on a large scale the many private social programs that have proven successful. But I found out firsthand that it’s much easier to raise money for fashionable cultural causes and prestigious educational institutions than for homeless shelters and mentoring programs for at-risk children. The annual $3,500-a-plate, black-tie ball for the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art raises enough money to buy plenty of warm winter coats for children in New York City. But instead the funds go to preserving and displaying the evening gowns of the social elite.

And there is, of course, no consistency in charitable giving. It fluctuates depending on the economy, the stock market, and the philanthropists’ mood. Donations by the country’s top sixty philanthropists for example, totaled $4.6 billion in 2002, down from $12.7 billion in 2001. These drastic fluctuations are not the only problem. If the private sector is to play a serious part in addressing social crises in America, we need to stop defining charitable giving as any tax-deductible contribution to any old 501(c)3-a classification that lump together a struggling soup kitchen and a university with an endowment larger than the GDP of the poorest one hundred countries. There’s a compelling reason for the government to not reward these donations equally. Just take a look at the Slate 60, the online magazine’s answer to the Forbes 400. It’s an annual list of America’s top charitable givers. Year in and year out the list is dominated by those giving to already flush universities and museums–often to fund buildings bearing the giver’s name.

The original catalyst for the Slate 60 was Ted Turner’s warning that the “superrich won’t loosen up their wads because they’re afraid they’ll reduce their net worth and go down on the Forbes list.” His corrective was “to honor the generous and shame the stingy.” The next step is for us all to acknowledge the obvious: Not all generosity is created equal, and so we need to honor those among the generous whose sights extend beyond their own enclaves. Compassion and philanthropy can’t fix America’s problems on their own. But they fill an even smaller portion of the gap between rich and poor when they are directed where they are not urgently needed.

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