Twenty folks possess more wealth than 50 percent of U.S. citizens, according to a December 2015 report from the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), a Washington-based progressive think tank focused on peace, justice and the environment.
The IPS study cites data from the latest Forbes 400 list, which necessitates having a net worth of at least $1.7 billion to be included.
The top 20 included many “household names” – Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, the Koch brothers, Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Bloomberg, Walton family members (Walmart) and George Soros.
Also mingled in the list were less familiar folks: Larry Ellison (Oracle), Larry Page and Sergey Brin (Google), Phil Knight (Nike) and heirs of the Mars candy company founders.
Their combined wealth? $732 billion.
Total net worth of the Forbes 400 is $62 trillion. By contrast, the IPS study noted, “The median American family has a net worth of $81,000.”
My consternation at these figures was tempered somewhat when I remembered another story I encountered the same day I reviewed the IPS findings.
Zuckerberg, founder and CEO of Facebook, announced following the birth of his daughter that he and his wife intend to donate 99 percent of their Facebook holdings – worth more than $45 billion – to charitable causes during their lifetime.
How this plays out remains to be seen, but it made me wonder how the Forbes 400 use their wealth.
Forbes publishes a top 50 givers annual report – based on actual charitable donations (not including announced or pledged gifts) – and many names from the Forbes 400 appeared.
Warren Buffett topped the 2014 list with $2.8 billion in gifts last year – $22.7 billion in lifetime donations (37 percent of his net worth).
Bill and Melinda Gates were second ($1.3 billion donated in 2014), with George Soros ($733 million), Michael Bloomberg ($462 million), Chuck Freeney ($434 million), the Walton family ($375 million) and James and Marilyn Simons ($331 million) rounding out the top seven.
“Eight of the 10 top donors of 2014 have signed the Giving Pledge, committing to giving more than half their wealth to charity,” Forbes noted. A lifetime percentage of net worth given to charitable causes was provided for 40 of the 50, with an average of nearly 20 percent donated.
Often I’ve joined the chorus of concerned citizens bemoaning the ever-growing wealth divide without considering the charitable initiatives undertaken by wealthy individuals – a frequent oversight in progressive reports and columns on this issue.
This isn’t to dismiss concerns about wealth inequality and its negative societal impacts, but this criticism must factor in the good that many are doing with their wealth.
This will help avoid assuming a counterproductive “us” versus “them” mindset toward the wealthy by painting them as evil and “other.”
It’s easy to criticize folks who possess what we consider to be excessive wealth, referencing Jesus’ parable about the dangers of hoarding possessions (see Luke 12:16-21) and his statements on wealth in Mark 10:23-27 and Matthew 6:19-34.
While wealth is presented as an obstacle to the faithful life Jesus envisions – using resources for the common good rather than hoarding them for personal benefit – the overall tenor of the biblical witness seems to be summarized in 1 Timothy 6:10: the love of money, not money itself, is the root of all kinds of evil.
When we see the love of money leading to all kinds of evil, we must speak up. But we must also recognize that having wealth isn’t inherently evil.
How we acquire it and what we do with it determines whether or not it is evil, sinful (see Ezekiel 22:27; Habakkuk 2:12, Jeremiah 22:13 and Micah 3:10, for example).
Pope Francis offers a constructive model. “Money must serve, not rule! The pope loves everyone, rich and poor alike, but he is obliged in the name of Christ to remind all that the rich must help, respect and promote the poor,” he said in a 2013 apostolic exhortation.
Rather than criticize individuals solely based on their wealth, let me suggest two more constructive actions:
1. Educate ourselves on the underlying cause of the growing rich-poor divide, as well as the systemic problems caused by wealth inequality, so that we can accurately understand the issues and work toward constructive solutions.
2. Encourage a broader adoption of the mindset that wealth is a means to advance the common good of everyone not solely to benefit an individual, family or small group (this seems to the be central point of Jesus’ encounter with the rich young man in Mark 10).
It’s easy to dismiss the charitable giving of billionaires by noting that their gifts are a small percentage of their net worth. While true in many cases, this, too, seems an unhelpful approach.
Few seasoned preachers would criticize members for their current giving levels in a sermon designed to increase donations.
More likely, they would give thanks for the ways in which folks have supported the congregation’s ministries and encourage them to consider how they could continue and expand on these gifts.
We would be wise to take a similar approach toward our nation’s wealthiest individuals so that more of our nation’s collective wealth becomes focused on advancing the common good.
Baptist Center for Ethics will observe its 25th anniversary in 2016. If you benefit from the daily articles appearing on EthicsDaily.com, as well as our documentary films, video interviews and other moral resources, please consider making a donation today. Click here to donate in $10 increments. Click here to donate in $50 increments.