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Wealthy Americans, Philanthropy, and the Common Good

Wealthy Americans, Philanthropy, and the Common Good

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Details from the first pilot survey of the attitudes of the wealthiest Americans.
Details from the first pilot survey of the attitudes of the wealthiest Americans.

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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: Russell Sage Foundation on Dec 07, 2011
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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Wealthy Americans, Philanthropy,and the Common Good
 Benjamin I. PageNorthwestern Universityb-page@northwestern.edu Fay Lomax Cook Northwestern UniversityRachel MoskowitzNorthwestern UniversitySeptember 25, 2011(minor revisions 10/16/11)
 It is sometimes assumed that wealthy Americans exert their political and socialinfluence in narrowly self-interested ways. In this paper we draw upon new data from apilot study of the top 1% or so of wealth-holders to investigate to what extent and in whatways wealthy people actually think about the common good, and what they personally doabout it.We find that our wealthy respondents cite many potential problems facing thecountry as very important, and that they offer serious ideas about how to address them.They are highly active in politics and initiate many contacts with high-level federalofficials. Most of these contacts – as best we can tell – concern problems of broadcommon interest rather than their own narrow self interest. We also find high levels of volunteering to help with a variety of causes, and high levels of charitable contributions –including some extraordinarily generous contributions. At the same time, we suggest thatthere is room to improve the quality and especially the quantity of charitable giving in theUnited States, which (as a proportion of income) falls well below the 10% annual“tithing” norm and (as a proportion of wealth) appears to fall far short of the Gates-Buffett “Giving Pledge” cumulative target of at least 50% of wealth.We also discuss variations in wealthy peoples’ charitable activity related to theirwealth levels, their personal characteristics (such as church attendance), their economicpositions (for example, professionals as vs. business owners and managers), and theirpolitical attitudes and orientations.
3On June 16, 2010, Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett announced a“Giving Pledge” campaign in which the wealthiest American individuals and families areasked to commit at least half their wealth to charitable or philanthropic causes, eitherduring their lifetimes or at death.
 The Forbes 400 wealthiest Americans at that time, taken all together, had anestimated total net worth of about $1.2 trillion ($1,200 billion). If half of that were givento charity the contributions would add up to $600 billion, roughly twice the total amountthen being given annually to charity by all Americans. Since the top 400 U.S. incomeearners were then giving only about 8% of their
(not wealth) to charity each year,and since the 38,000 or so annual estate tax returns to IRS were showing charitablebequests of only about 12% of their $229 billion in total estate value, the Giving Pledgeclearly has the potential to greatly increase – in fact to transform – Americanphilanthropy.
By the end of April, 2011, 69 billionaires had made the pledge. Manyothers have been contacted and are thinking about it.
 The Giving Pledge is a major initiative with transforming potential. But it fitsinto an old and uniquely American philanthropic tradition, in which economicallysuccessful people “give back” much of their accumulated wealth to help others. Sincethe beginning of the twentieth century, when John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie andothers established their great charitable foundations, private philanthropy has become amajor element in efforts at social progress in the United States.
 Wealthy Americans have also played a major part in politics and policy making.There can be little doubt that economic resources can be translated into political

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