Philanthropy That Upends the Status Quo

Being rich is kinda hard, at least in some ways, according to the book I’m reading, Rachel Sherman’s Uneasy Street: The Anxieties of Affluence.

Sherman asserts that we don’t know much about the wealthy. Maybe that’s because of one thing she learns from her in-depth interviews with fifty affluent New Yorkers. They avoid talking about money. Sherman examines their lifestyle choices and their understanding of privilege.

Here’s the book’s marketing blurb, written by Sherman herself I suspect:

“Sherman upends images of wealthy people as invested only in accruing and displaying social advantages for themselves and their children. Instead, these liberal elites, who believe in diversity and meritocracy, feel conflicted about their position in a highly unequal society. They wish to be “normal,” describing their consumption as reasonable and basic and comparing themselves to those who have more than they do rather than those with less. These New Yorkers also want to see themselves as hard workers who give back and raise children with good values. . . .

Although their experiences differ depending on a range of factors, including whether their wealth was earned or inherited, these elites generally depict themselves as productive and prudent, and therefore morally worthy, while the undeserving rich are lazy, ostentatious, and snobbish. Sherman argues that this ethical distinction between “good” and “bad” wealthy people characterizes American culture more broadly, and that it perpetuates rather than challenges economic inequality.

As the distance between rich and poor widens, Uneasy Street not only explores the real lives of those at the top but also sheds light on how extreme inequality comes to seem ordinary and acceptable to the rest of us.”

That pitch pretty much jives with my reading of it. I get the sense though, if asked off the record, Sherman would say the majority of her interviewees are full of shit, masters at rationalizing their privilege and a large part of the problem when it comes to extreme inequality. As a qualitative researcher she’s walking a delicate balance, developing a rapport with participants most of whom I doubt she likes very much.

My reaction to the fifty is more sympathetic and bifurcated than Sherman’s mostly negative one. I could easily be friends with the subset that are most conscious of their privilege and intentionally living below their means. Despite this difference, I found Sherman’s fourth chapter on philanthropy, titled “‘Giving Back,’ Awareness, and Identity” especially interesting in ways that charitable people of any means might as well.

In particular, when it came to the considerable amounts of money Sherman’s wealthy interviewees gave away, I was struck by how disorganized they were. Few if any had committed the time and energy into developing a philosophy of giving; as a result, the sum of their gifts wasn’t close to the individual parts. One said, “I literally gave five hundred dollars to hundreds of organizations. I exaggerate not. Hundreds of organizations.” He had done this, Sherman said, to stay below the radar. To not draw attention that he was giving a lot of money in order to avoid subsequent requests for ever larger gifts.

Another participant said rather than developing a coherent plan, she and her husband gave to friends who asked for money for their pet projects:

“Right now, it’s pretty pathetic. I think we donate a decent amount of money to our schools. And the only reason for that is because we don’t feel like we’ve been able to get our act together enough to actually give in a thoughtful way. We give to people when they ask, and not because we feel like it’s aligned with what our values are. . .  . And we just haven’t had the time and energy to research all the organizations that we feel like are worthwhile. So we end up getting lazy.”

I have a rule that applies here, whenever you hear “haven’t had the time”, read “haven’t made the time” meaning it just hasn’t been important enough. I have an advantage in this regard in that The Gal Pal has committed considerable time to developing a coherent plan. I have a coherent plan too. At the Pearly Gates I’m going to say, “I’m with her.”

Of philanthropy more generally, Sherman notes:

“Sociologists have tended to question the motivations and functions of philanthropy and volunteerism, often arguing that these actions both depend on and justify class privilege and that philanthropy essentially reproduces class divisions. People I interviewed . . . tend to focus their giving and volunteering either on their own communities, especially their children’s schools, or on organizations that help the very poor (thereby ameliorating the worst effects of capitalist inequality rather than changing the system).”

Like researchers before her, Sherman found her participant’s giving did not challenge structural inequalities in any way. However, some did critique the system from which they benefit. Of these people, Sherman wrote:

“. . . they often supported organizations advocating gender, race, and economic justice. They knew such giving was unlikely to lead to major change, but it was not clear what else they could do to challenge inequality.”

Miriam, one of the participants said,

“Is the division of income in society fucked up? Absolutely. And do we value they wrong things? Absolutely. So you know, what I get paid is ridiculous. And then, if you think about it, like a teacher or people who are like giving a ton—a firefighter, right—I mean, they’re not making anywhere near as much. . . . And you know, that is crazy.”

Miriam mostly donated to organizations that served people struggling to survive.

“But,” she continued, “I definitely feel guilty, and I try to assuage some of that by giving. But I don’t know what else I can do.”

Sherman concludes:

“. . . ‘giving back’ in whatever form it takes, ultimately does not lead to broad structural transformation. For most of the people I talked with, this kind of change was not the goal; ‘giving back’ was a less conflicted, more taken-for-granted part of their identities as good people. For those who would have wanted more radical change, it was frustrating not to be able to make it.”

Apart from the aforementioned reference to “organizations advocating gender, race, and economic justice,” I’m not sure how philanthropists interested in broad structural transformation might maximize their giving.

But I bet you the Gal Pal does. Here’s hoping she’ll enlighten us.


1 thought on “Philanthropy That Upends the Status Quo

  1. Giving by these wealthy people is good and needs to be sustained but it is there way of not really getting involved and understanding how to end systemic poverty. It’s a Ponticus Pilate act that says we did all we could to help them. NOT.

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