Why Philanthropy Alone Can’t Fix Inequality

All Hands On Deck
Photo by Perry Grone / Unsplash

I think for the first time ever someone from the 1% explicitly calls out philanthropy in relation to inequality. This is an excerpt from Abigail Disney’s testimony to House Financial Services Committee. Read the full statement here.

Philanthropy is often offered as the answer to the problem of inequality. While wonderful, philanthropy is not the answer because these problems are not a question of personal choices or individual behaviors. They are the consequences of structures that create and then enforce a deeply unfair and inequitable society.

Philanthropy offers a man a fish, even teaches a man to fish, but persistently fails to ask why the lake is running out of water…

Philanthropy offers a man a fish, even teaches a man to fish, but persistently fails to ask why the lake is running out of water, or why the man does not know how to do what his ancestors knew perfectly well how to do and did every day.

Philanthropy supports art and education and many indispensable cultural institutions, and we should all be grateful to the donors who take this job on. I do not question the generosity it entails.

Philanthropy that helps the poor is in many ways an even more admirable form of the art, because it offers benefits that the donor cannot possibly enjoy him or herself.

But in attempting to address the consequences of deeply unfair economic structures—the very structures, in fact, that make philanthropy possible—even the most generous charitable giving uses the master’s tools that can never dismantle the master’s house, to borrow a metaphor from Audre Lorde.

Even if philanthropy could face its fear of asking where all the money is coming from, it still cannot work at large enough of a scale or in enough unison to address the problems I am talking about. Even the largest philanthropy is dwarfed by government programs like Head Start, Food Stamps, Social Security and Medicare, each of which has proven effective and has already lifted many millions out of poverty.

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