Chapter 1 – Renewing the Promise

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CHAPTER 1 – Renewing the Promise

Twenty-one-year-old Aquila plans to open her own catering business in the next few years. This goal may seem grandiose for someone her age, yet it is well within reach given the unusual path her life has taken. When I spoke with Aquila in July 2011, she was working as a line cook at the luxurious Seaport Hotel overlooking Boston Harbor. She had already accumulated a wealth of valuable experience in the food service industry, had developed contacts with several local chefs, and was just a year away from earning her bachelor’s degree in hospitality management from Southern New Hampshire University.

Just a few years earlier, it would have seemed impossible that things might turn out this way. Aquila had a 1.7 grade point average in the Baking & Pastry program at a vocational high school in Roxbury, a low-income Boston neighborhood, and had little motivation or direction. The only thing she knew for sure was that she wasn’t going to college. She believed she was smart yet just didn’t have an interest in school. Why bother? All the people she knew who had started college just ended up dropping out and becoming saddled with debt.

But, Aquila had a passion for cooking – that much was clear to anyone who knew her. Chef Lucas, her 10th grade culinary arts teacher, believed she had the ability to cultivate this passion into valuable job skills; all she needed was the determination. So, he pushed her to work hard and encouraged her to think about where her skills could take her. He also introduced her to Toni Elka. Elka had recently founded the nonprofit organization, Future Chefs, in an effort to help youngsters like Aquila. Toni had been making connections with chefs at Boston-area restaurants. Her vision was that with the right support and encouragement, these could be the sorts of places where someone like Aquila could find gainful employment. And that’s just what has happened. Since graduating from high school, she has worked during her summer breaks in three different restaurants, gaining experience as both a line cook and in baking & pastry. Each of these jobs she got because of her connection to Future Chefs.

Enabling young people to develop their culinary skills and get job leads are just a part of what Future Chefs aims to do. “Because of Future Chefs, I feel like I am definitely going to be more successful in my life since I have gotten experiences that I couldn’t have had otherwise.” Aquila was referring not only to her impressive resume but also to how her involvement with the organization has exposed her to people and situations that have nurtured her self-confidence. At the Future Chefs cook-off competition following her senior year in high school, her plate received affirmation from renowned Boston chef Chris Douglass. This made her feel really good about her abilities and gave her the conviction that being a chef in a reputable restaurant was a role for which she was well-suited. That evening Douglass and others who have achieved success in the restaurant industry shared stories about their own career trajectories. Some had undergraduate and/or culinary degrees, some graduated from high school but had not gone to college, and others never even finished high school. Aquila recalls the event as a pivotal moment in her budding motivation to do something significant with her life.

Through her involvement with Future Chefs, Aquila has developed career goals and has discovered the value of higher education in achieving them. At Southern New Hampshire University she has honed her cooking skills. And moving out of state has meant leaving the poor, mostly black neighborhood where she had spent her entire life to that point. This has been a life-changing experience, enabling her to meet new kinds of people, to look at her place in the world differently, and to grow personally. So much for the girl who didn’t want to go to college!

Becoming connected with Future Chefs has dramatically changed Aquila’s life by giving her support, direction, and self-confidence. Her mother and grandmother, with whom she lived while growing up, didn’t know how to help her develop life goals even though they certainly cared for and loved her very much. Tragically only a handful of low-income youth in the United States are fortunate enough to get the type of second chance Future Chefs has given Aquila. Most of the kids she grew up with still lack direction and are either working in dead-end jobs or are unemployed. Few aspire to get post-secondary training, and those who are trying do not have much adult support. “There are a couple of people who actually, you know, they have had strong people behind them to help them push on but I can count them – I don’t even need a whole hand to count those people that I know that are doing something good.” Kids from her neighborhood are, in her view, more focused on partying and drinking than on trying to move their lives forward. It is no coincidence that the one friendship Aquila has maintained from high school is with another woman, Shaq, who also went through Future Chefs’ program and is her college roommate. After graduation, the two of them plan to open the catering business together. 1

Were it not for the support individuals and foundations give to Future Chefs, Aquila and her roommate would likely be in a similar boat to most of the others they knew growing up – low-income and without ambitious goals or consistent adult guidance. There are so many youngsters facing this predicament nowadays. In early 2012, when the U.S. unemployment rate hovered above eight percent, a Pew Research Center study reported that only 54 percent of people ages 18-24 held jobs – the lowest rate for this demographic since the government started tracking these data in 1948. The magnitude of hardship in the United States, for young people as well as for other age groups, grew enormously during the Great Recession and continues to increase amidst the tepid economic recovery. Consequently, there has been a widening of the “opportunity divide” between those who have the money, skills, and contacts to attain financial success and those who don’t. This problem is compounded by the pessimistic sense many Americans have that there is little they can do to narrow the gap. 2

Aquila’s story is an antidote to this feeling of helplessness. Even more encouraging than how a nonprofit organization has enabled her to turn her life around is the fact that her tale is anything but unique. While there may be no magic-bullet solutions to the economic opportunity divide, your charitable giving can still be consequential in effecting positive changes for people facing circumstances like Aquila’s. Of the roughly $300 billion given to charity each year in the United States, 75 percent comes from individuals. Most of this money is donated not by the celebrity philanthropists we often hear about but by people like you who just want to make a difference. Nearly 80 percent of total giving comes from those with annual incomes under $1 million and over a third from individuals who earn less than $100,000. 3

People give for reasons including religious obligation, ethical concern, social acceptance, and tax advantage. Whatever the motive, the bottom line is that giving makes us feel good. We have as much to gain from the experience as do the recipients of our generosity. Research has shown that giving produces a high unlike anything else we do. The mere thought of donating to charity activates the same part of the brain stimulated during eating and sex. Giving also may be good for our health. A classic study of people who saw a film about Mother Teresa’s charitable work in India found that they subsequently had elevated immune systems. Expressing generosity, therefore, does not only transform others’ lives; it also greatly enriches our own too.  When we help others, we also help ourselves. 4

Though charity is so personally fulfilling, it is all too easy to choose not to give when confronted by the economic hardships so many Americans experience. We often feel resigned and throw up our hands at the enormity of these hardships, seeing individual stories of misfortune as merely tiny drops within a huge ocean of need. Yet, the fact that the sum of our personal acts of generosity cannot fully bridge the opportunity divide hardly means that each of us doing what we can to help is futile. Even small contributions to high-impact nonprofits like the ones chronicled in this book can make tangible and lasting improvements in Americans’ quality of life. People prefer different ways of being involved, so how you might decide to increase your giving is a matter of personal choice. Whether you contribute monetarily or voluntarily, both are important. This book identifies organizations around the United States to which giving either your time or your money would make a huge impact.

Oprah’s rise to stardom is a tale for all to admire. Born to unwed teen parents in Mississippi, she lived her early years in poverty with her grandmother. Then she moved to Nashville to be with her father and subsequently to Milwaukee to live with her mother. There, she was sexually assaulted several times by family members and ultimately ended up back with her father, who set her on a disciplined course during her adolescent years. Her grandmother had cultivated in her a passion for reading and she was a naturally gifted public speaker. At 19, upon being named Miss Black America, she began her broadcasting career at a TV station in Nashville. After a stint as a news anchor in Baltimore, she moved to Chicago to host a morning talk show. Two years later, at the age of 32, she became host of the Oprah Winfrey Show, and the rest is history. 5

We all know the script: if one is determined and hard-working, there are no limits to what one can do in life. Oprah’s story confirms the belief that in America anything is possible. You are likely familiar with other stories like hers. They may be media moguls or they may be people who are not in the public eye yet whose lives took a similar path: they were born into families with modest means yet grew up to attain considerable financial success. These people all embody the great rags-to-riches tale that is so definitive of our history and culture. Self-made Americans are often profiled in magazines like Forbes or People, and are the subject of popular films such as The Pursuit of Happiness, Pretty Woman, and Trading Places. Their stories reinforce the widespread belief that personal ambition is what matters most for getting ahead.

Our faith that hard work ensures a better life does not mesh with the times. Many Americans can remember an era when, with a high school diploma, a person could get a job that paid well enough to save for a down payment on a home and for kids to go to college. Not anymore. Most decent-paying work nowadays requires post-secondary training. Over the past few decades, as factories have closed and moved overseas, industrial jobs have been replaced by low-skill work at places like malls and fast food joints. Whereas 60 years ago General Motors was the largest employer in the United States and worldwide, Wal-Mart is the poster child of today’s low-wage economy. A family of four in which both parents work full-time for minimum wage earns under $31,000 a year. This is the reality for millions of Americans. 6

About 16 percent of the U.S. population – some 49.1 million people – lives below the federal poverty line, which in 2012 was an annual income of $23,050 for a family of four. This matches the highest percentage since before President Lyndon Johnson’s war on poverty during the 1960s. The number of poor children in the United States rose by a third from 2000-2009 and now stands at approximately 15 million. More than a quarter of the residents of Miami, Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, St. Louis, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, El Paso, and Milwaukee live in poverty. And these figures do not take into account the millions who teeter on the brink, facing daily struggles to make ends meet. The U.S. Census Bureau now classifies nearly 1 in 2 people in this country as “low-income” – meaning they live in families with annual household income less than twice the poverty line. 7

The 2011 Occupy movement shined a spotlight on these realities, exposing them in a way that had never been done before. Encampments across U.S. cities drew attention to the growing fortunes of the rich during a period when the incomes of low-wage workers increased only modestly. A study that same year by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office revealed that after-tax, inflation-adjusted earnings of the “one percent” rose 275-fold from 1979-2007; by comparison, earnings rose just 18 percent for the poorest fifth of the population. Some corporate executives now make in a single day what it takes the majority of workers all year to earn. This gross disparity brings to mind a New Yorker cartoon depicting five business executives standing huddled together having an informal backroom meeting, with the caption “OK, guys, now let’s go out and earn that four hundred times our workers’ salaries.” As if the differences in compensation between those at the top and those at the bottom of a corporate hierarchy were merely a reflection of their own individual efforts! 8

The key issue here isn’t only growing inequality but also declining opportunity. Consider the findings of a study conducted by the Pew Charitable Trust that compared the household incomes of youth growing up during the late 1970s and early 1980s with their family incomes as adults 20 years later. Of those born into the poorest quintile of the population (the poorest 20 percent), just 7 percent moved to the highest quintile. In contrast, 34 percent did not achieve any mobility whatsoever. Another 27 percent moved up just to the next highest quintile. For those who started in the second lowest quintile, 45 percent either stayed there or actually moved downward. “A consensus view has emerged,” wrote the study’s author Bhashkar Mazumder, “suggesting that the United States exhibits much less intergenerational economic mobility than previously thought and appears to be less economically mobile than are many other industrialized countries.” This evidence of the withering of the American Dream became headline news in early 2012, with feature stories in both New York Times and on NPR. The inconvenient truth that our society is not living up to its promise as the “land of opportunity” is now plainly visible for all to see. Whereas at one time millions of poor immigrants found on our shores the pathway to a better life, nowadays the roadblocks preventing low-income Americans from getting ahead have become nearly insurmountable. 9

Nevertheless, Americans still generally believe getting ahead is within most people’s reach. In another Pew study conducted three months after the Occupy protests began, 58 percent of respondents agreed “most people who want to get ahead can make it if they are willing to work hard.“ This snapshot of public opinion confirms the central finding from a 2005 nationwide New York Times telephone poll: Americans tend to see hard work as more important to success than coming from a wealthy family or having the right connections. Respondents with annual family incomes under $30,000 were as likely to believe the poor could achieve upward mobility through drive and determination as were those with family incomes above $150,000. 10

Let’s consider these attitudes alongside a key finding from a Gallup poll conducted in December 2011: 70 percent of respondents indicated it was “very” or “extremely” important to increase equality of opportunity so that Americans who want to get ahead can. Thus, while we firmly believe in the importance of hard work and personal responsibility, we also recognize there are growing segments of the population who need help if they are to achieve a better life. Most of us are inclined to think assistance should come from a source that occupies a special place in our cultural psyche: charity. Considering that we have long seen giving as a way to offer second chances, now should be no exception. 11

In order to restore the promise of the American Dream, we need to view charity not as a gift but an investment. Thinking in this way means we should expect that the money or time we donate will yield measurable returns, in the same way that investors set this bar when buying stocks or bonds. From this perspective, for the many people who are trying to better their lot in life yet still aren’t getting ahead, it is sensible to make investments that will create the conditions in which their efforts will actually pay off – both for them and for society as a whole.

John Edwards’ bid for the 2008 Democratic presidential ticket was doomed long before he admitted to having an affair with his campaign videographer and to fathering her child, both of which occurred as his wife Elizabeth was dying of cancer. Before these sordid details went public, Edwards had held his own quite well for several months against his party rivals, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. He had built his candidacy on the theme of “Two Americas,” passionately arguing that whereas the incomes of most people had in recent years either stagnated or declined the wealthy were amassing a growing slice of the pie. On the stump he spoke earnestly about how, if elected, he would make attacking the rich-poor gap a centerpiece of his administration. Even had there been no scandal it’s hard to imagine Edwards would have ever been elected president, since uttering rhetoric explicitly aimed at redistributing wealth is so controversial. Over the past few decades several federal policies have actually played a central role in contributing to the rise in economic inequality. These policies include privatization of government services, industrial deregulation, cuts in safety net spending, and a decline – in real terms – in the minimum wage. 12

The political climate in Washington is unreceptive to reversing these trends. Due to a record federal deficit, there is strong support for curtailing social spending. Fiscal constraints are unlikely to abate any time soon, given the mass retirement of Baby Boomers that looms on the horizon. The federal government will be paying out ballooning amounts in entitlements at a time when the retiree population will be growing faster than the tax base, further crippling the government’s capacity to undertake major initiatives to redress inequality. 13

President Obama’s proposed “Buffett Rule,” which would impose a minimum tax rate of 30 percent on people earning over $1 million a year, is certainly an attempt to promote greater equality. Yet, it has raised lots of red flags. Not only have critics attacked the plan for being redistributive, it has also fallen victim to a more generalized anti-government sentiment. A September 2011 CNN poll revealed that public trust in the federal government’s effectiveness at solving problems had hit an all-time low. Just 15 percent of respondents expressed confidence in Washington to do the right thing all or most of the time. This sentiment is encapsulated in an August 2011 letter to the New York Times in response to an Op-Ed by Warren Buffett advocating that the deficit be reduced by enacting the proposed tax plan that now bears his name. The writer, Edward Miller, commented that government inefficiency is the reason Americans are not getting a sufficient return on the taxes they pay, and that we should evaluate the legitimacy of raising taxes on the rich “no differently than how Mr. Buffett treats an investment in a company. When the returns from a company are insufficient, he does not throw good money after bad.” 14

Considering how prevalent public distrust of government has become, it is incumbent upon us as private citizens to explore ways to take greater responsibility for reducing our nation’s economic opportunity divide. Each of us has the power to redress this injustice that has increasingly come to define and malign our society. Although we have widely divergent political leanings, directing our giving so that hard-working people are able to achieve the promise of the American Dream is an idea around which we can find consensus. After all, we place tremendous value both on being a land of equal opportunity and on showing generosity toward those in need.

An astounding 89 percent of U.S. households donate on average $1800 a year – a clear indicator that charity is as American as apple pie. This is something Alexis de Tocqueville made note of nearly 200 years ago in his then-definitive account of our culture and mores. Throughout our history we have generally preferred private over public solutions to social problems. Beginning in the early 19th century, people of means supported private institutions that chronologically included almshouses, workhouses, benevolent societies, charity organization societies, settlement houses, and social welfare agencies. After Andrew Carnegie and Nelson Rockefeller amassed enormous sums of wealth during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they created the first private foundations. Charity remained a bedrock American tradition even during the heyday of the welfare state in the mid-20th century. And in the current era of small government, giving is perhaps as cherished a value as it ever has been. 15

Thus, this book’s messages are powerful not only because they address growing concerns about the withering of the American Dream, but also because they tap into the deep-seated value we put on giving as a way to redress social problems. The strategies laid out for how you can be part of the solution are not presented as partisan mandates stipulating that you must pay more so that others can get ahead, but rather as charitable choices for you to consider.
Meet Joe and Kate. They live in a picturesque California suburb and asked us to conceal their identity because what their neighbors don't know is that they are on the verge of losing it all. Joe was laid off eight weeks ago. Kate still has her job but $11 an hour doesn’t feed a family of four. They use their savings to pay down their credit card and have little cushion. Kate once volunteered at a soup kitchen. On this day, she was the one asking for help for the first time.” Reporter Sharyn Alfonsi offered these words in a chilling segment on ABC World News with Diana Sawyer. As Alfonsi spoke, the camera zoomed in on the family’s beautiful home located in a pristine suburban neighborhood. Alfonsi’s report was part of a series titled “The Fight for the Middle Class” ABC broadcast in 2010 as the unemployment rate hovered around 10 percent. The New York Times ran a similar series called “The New Poor” and many other news sources also provided extensive reporting about how the recession was causing middle class families to tailspin downward. These stories highlight how, amidst the economic slowdown, even people like you and me have fallen on hard times and become in need of help. 16

In a revealing study conducted several years before the onset of the Great Recession in 2008, Washington University Professor Mark Rank discovered something rather startling when he analyzed income data over the course of people’s entire lives. By age 75, the majority of Americans (58.5 percent) had at some point experienced a year of poverty and just over 45 percent had endured two years. Over a third had lived in poverty for four years and nearly 30 percent five or more years. The fact that by this age nearly 3 in 10 Americans have lived five or more years below the poverty line and more than half of all whites have experienced at least a year of poverty shatters the popular image of the poor as a minority subculture with values counter to the middle-class mainstream. Investing in greater opportunity for all, therefore, makes sense in the same way that it is prudent to buy auto insurance. Nobody expects to get into a car accident but those who do are grateful that they have the protection. 17

Even if you never experience economic hardship directly, you are still adversely affected by it. A 2007 report by the Center for American Progress calculated the costs of childhood poverty to be roughly $500 billion a year. These costs reverberate throughout the educational, criminal justice, and healthcare systems in the following ways. 18

  • Low academic achievement. The disadvantages of being born poor begin virtually at birth. In a landmark study, psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley found that during the key years of language acquisition, low-income children typically heard many fewer and less complex words spoken by their parents than children growing up in higher-income families. Parents of poor children uttered less than a third as many words per hour than upper-middle class parents. By the time kids enter kindergarten, test scores of literacy and math tend on average to be 60 percent lower among the poorest children than the most affluent. This achievement gap grows during elementary and middle school to the point that students from low-income families are six times likelier to drop out of high school than kids from high-income families. Society bears the brunt of these inequalities because a vast segment of the workforce lacks the skills needed to contribute productively to our economy. 19
  • Violent crime. Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson has spent years studying low-income black males, observing the enormous pressure on them to identify with toughness and physicality rather than education. This pattern extends to kids of other racial backgrounds, as violence often stands out in their eyes as the only viable ticket to respect. Violent crime is especially pronounced in neighborhoods with very high concentrations of poverty because kids are unlikely to grow up with role models of people pursuing conventional pathways to success. When a critical mass of under-educated youth turns to crime, we expend tremendous sums of money on police and corrections, and also pay a heavy price in quality of life by living in fear. 20

  • Poor health. Low-income children experience higher rates of asthma and lead poisoning than do kids growing up in higher-income neighborhoods. Children in low-income households are also more susceptible to neglect, physical abuse, and sexual abuse, given the dire financial stresses their parents endure. Not only are poor children subject to these higher health risks, they are also less likely to receive routine medical care. And when they do receive care, it tends to be from a neighborhood or hospital-based clinic rather than under the typically more attentive eye of a private doctor. The societal price tag of poor people’s inferior health is huge. The costs of visiting the emergency room, a frequent occurrence for the many low-income people without health insurance, are astronomical. 21

The bottom line here is simple: we can continue to incur the escalating costs associated with these problems or we can choose to invest in programs that relieve the serious strains the economic opportunity divide puts on our educational, criminal justice, and healthcare systems.

There is also a moral justification for making these investments, and it is one that is embedded in our nation’s history. Ever since the Declaration of Independence proclaimed all men as created equal, the concept of equality has continually expanded; the most significant developments being the enfranchisement of blacks and women. Given the growing inclusiveness of this concept over time, the notion that those who work hard yet struggle are deserving of help seems consistent with our deepest values. It simply isn’t right that our society advertises the American Dream as available to all yet leaves so many struggling to make ends meet and without much hope for a better life.

On a crisp day in 2005 U2 lead singer Bono met with President Bush for an hour and 40 minutes over lunch. Amidst intermittent banter about the band’s upcoming Washington concerts, the two men discussed the possibility of the U.S. giving more development aid to Africa. It was hardly the first time Bono had conferred with the administration’s top brass about this issue. In the summer of 2001 he had spoken with National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, and the following March traveled with Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neil on a 10-day tour through Ghana, Ethiopia, Uganda, and South Africa. Bono had also met previously with the president, most recently in July 2005 during the G8 Summit in Gleneagles, Scotland where Bush pledged $50 billion in aid to developing countries by 2010, half of it going to African nations.

Bono and Bush in the Oval

Office, October 2005

When not dazzling crowds of screaming fans at sold-out arenas and stadiums, Bono is often seen convening with world leaders – a side gig that has become his second day job. He is one of the most visible champions for the plight of the global poor, advocating that wealthy countries give substantially greater amounts of aid to tackle the dire social problems so many people in Africa and around the world experience on a daily basis: AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, unsanitary drinking water, and inadequate educational opportunity. 22

Although the White House lunch produced no photo-op pronouncements of new aid commitments, there was something telling about the timing of that meeting. It had been just seven weeks since Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, catapulting U.S. poverty into the national spotlight. Amidst harsh criticism for doing too little to help low-income people evacuate in advance of the storm, President Bush began to make his concern for America’s poor more palpable. On the evening of September 15th he addressed the nation from Jackson Square, a signature New Orleans landmark located in the heart of the historic French Quarter. Bush pledged that the administration would give the city’s low-income residents its unwavering support so that they would eventually be faring better than they had been before the storm:

We will stay as long as it takes to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives…As all of us saw on television, there is also some deep, persistent poverty in this region as well. And that poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action. So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality. 23

Since the president was becoming consumed with managing this disaster, Bono knew better in that moment than to push forward with his Africa agenda. In mid-September he told the New York Times Magazine: “I have to be sensitive about putting my hand in America’s pocket at a time like this.” 24

But just a month later it was again safe for Bono to reach into the Bush administration’s coffers. American poverty had receded from the public eye, again becoming the invisible issue it had long been before Katrina. When the two men met on that October afternoon to discuss the abject conditions experienced by poor people around the world, incredibly neither of them mentioned the plight of low-income Americans. What’s more, media coverage of the meeting made no mention of this irony. The New York Times Magazine cover story about Bono likewise didn’t point out the obvious disconnect between all the jockeying he was doing on behalf of Africa’s poor and the fact that poverty in the United States had recently become a topic of central concern.

Bono is the most popular among a field of celebrities who advocate for impoverished people around the world. Bob Geldof has also become a household name connecting rock music and development aid. He conceived the Live Aid concerts held in 1985 for Ethiopian famine relief as well as the July 2005 Live 8 concerts that were each held in a different G8 country in the days preceding the Gleneagles summit. In addition to the many top-name musicians performing at these concerts, notables who attended or made speeches included Bill Gates, Nelson Mandela, Kofi Anan, Brad Pitt, Cameron Diaz, Justin Timberlake, George Clooney, and Susan Sarandon.

The efforts of celebrities, world leaders, and high-profile philanthropists to make global poverty an issue of significant public concern manifest what the economist Dambisa Moyo calls the “culture of aid.” This refers to humanitarian practices grounded in the belief that we, in the West, have a moral responsibility to improve the condition of the world’s poor because they are trapped in circumstances beyond their control. There are, by contrast, few prominent spokespersons advocating that we show similar concern for the plight of our own low-income population. How odd it would seem if American concert audiences were to sing out in unison against economic injustice here at home.

This disparity of charitable concern makes sense given that poor people living in the United States do not experience the gross deprivation commonplace in many parts of the world. But they nonetheless live with the burden of having the deck stacked against their chances for mobility while many people cast aspersions on them for having failed to achieve a better life. Therefore, while of course it is righteous for us to come to the aid of destitute people in the developing world, doing so may absolve us of feeling charitably responsible for fostering greater opportunity in our own society. Doesn’t charity, after all, begin at home? 25

Theone Ferron had just been layed off from her $17,500 a year job without getting severance pay. A single mother living in the Bronx, she was at the time eight months pregnant with her second child. While family members provided emotional support to help Theone cope with her job loss, they couldn’t afford to assist her financially. After many months of not being able to find work, she decided to return to school to fulfill her lifelong ambition to become a special education teacher. But, she wasn’t able to get a student loan because she had longstanding debt. In addition she was falling behind on her rent and utility bills. Fortunately, this story has a happy ending. Theone met with a social worker from Catholic Charities who recommended that the New York Times Neediest Cases Fund pay her bills and buy her a computer for school.

This charity is only in operation between Thanksgiving and the New Year. Since for millions of people the holidays are a time for helping those who are less fortunate, many news sources make special giving appeals at this time of year. Reporters chronicle stories of adversity (e.g., a parent being layed off or an illness sapping family savings) and showcase examples of generosity that is making a difference in these people’s lives. Theone’s story appeared in the New York Times on Christmas Day, 2009. 26

News coverage of people aided by holiday giving campaigns depicts them as deserving of help because their hardships are beyond their own capacity to fix. These fundraising appeals, therefore, are a temporary departure from the dominant characterization of low-income Americans as personally responsible for their own struggles. Consequently, at the end of each year lots of people like Theone get much-needed help. But amidst this intoxicating news which lifts our spirits during the holiday season lies a sobering truth: the rest of the year we do very little to help create opportunity for fellow Americans in need. Their struggles for the most part disappear from our minds in early January and do not reappear until we are eating our Thanksgiving dinners. 27

Fifty years ago in The Other America Michael Harrington shook the nation’s conscience by shining a light on the everyday hardships millions of Americans experience. Just because our government is unlikely to address this issue in a systematic way comparable to how Harrington’s book fueled the war on poverty doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and begrudgingly accept that the economic opportunity divide must go unchecked. We can indeed make headway in fighting this problem and each of us has an important role to play. “Today we have more power as private citizens to do public good, both at home and around the world, than citizens in all of human history have ever had,” commented former President Bill Clinton, who has devoted his years since leaving the Oval Office to many charitable causes. Over the coming decades Baby Boomers will bequeath more wealth to their heirs than any prior generation of Americans ever has – an amount estimated to be as high as $41 trillion by 2055. As a result, we have an unprecedented opportunity to channel our generosity in ways that can renew the great promise of the American Dream for millions of people. 28


1 This material is from a phone interview with Aquila, July 2011. The photo is © Laura Widness and used by permission.

2 “Young, Unemployed and Optimistic” (2012),

3 “Patterns of Household Charitable Giving by Income Group, 2005” (2007), 15.

4 Moll et al, “Human Fronto–Mesolimbic Networks Guide Decisions about Charitable Donation” (2006); McClelland and Kirshnit, “The Effect of Motivational Arousal through Films on Salivary Immunoglobulin” (1988).

5 Oprah’s story is chronicled on many websites including her own. This synopsis is from and

6 Block, Korteweg, and Woodward, “The Compassion Gap in American Poverty Policy” (2006), 14-15;”America’s 5 Biggest Employers Then and Now (2010),

7 Luhby “Poverty Rate Rises Under Alternate Census Measure” (2011),; Tavernise, “Soaring Poverty Casts Spotlight on ‘Lost Decade’” (2011),; National Center for Children in Poverty, Columbia University:; Yen, “Census shows 1 in 2 people Are Poor or Low-income” (2011),

8 Congressional Budget Office, “Trends in the Distribution of Household Income Between 1979 and 2007” (2011),; Mishel, Bernstein, and Shierholz, “The State of Working America 2008/2009” (2008), 9,; The Stanford Center for the Study of Poverty and Inequality, The cartoon appeared in the April 24, 2000 New Yorker.

9 Mazumder, “Upward Intergenerational Mobility in the United States” (2008), 5,; DeParle, “Harder for Americans to Rise From Lower Rungs” (2012); “Not Movin’ On Up” (2012),

10 Pew Research Center, “Frustration with Congress Could Hurt

Republican Incumbents” (2011),; New York Times, “How Class Works” (2005) – retrieved from

11 The Gallup poll was conducted December 16, 2011,

12 Schmitt “Inequality as Policy” (2009), retrieved from, 4; Block, Korteweg, and Woodward, “The Compassion Gap in American Poverty Policy” (2006), 16.

13 Goldberg, Billions of Drops in Millions of Buckets (2009), 63-69.

14 The CNN poll was conducted from September 24-26,; Gallup poll (2011); Miller, “Should the Wealthy Pay Higher Taxes?”,

15 Giving & Volunteering in the United States (2001),; Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1969); Silver, Unequal Partnerships (2006), 15-37.

16 ABC World News with Diane Sawyer, “Economic Troubles Push Some Middle-Class Americans to the Edge of Poverty, “Aired March 16, 2010,

17 Rank, One Nation, Underprivileged (2005), 91-96, 106.

18 Holzer, Schanzenbach, Duncan, and Ludwig, “The Economic Costs of Poverty” (2007).

19 Hart and Risley, “The Early Catastrophe” (2003); Lee and Burkam, “Inequality at the Starting Gate” (2002); Cordes and Miller, “Inequality of Education in the United States” (n.d.),; Walpole,Socioeconomic Status and College” (2003).

20 Anderson, Code of the Street (1999); MacLeod Ain’t No Makin’ It (2008); Krivo and Peterson, “Extremely Disadvantaged Neighborhoods and Urban Crime” (1996).

21 Manson and Bassuk, “Obesity in the United States” (2003); Halfon and Newacheck, Childhood Asthma and Poverty” (1993); Drake and Pandey, “Understanding the Relationship between Neighborhood Poverty and Specific Types of Child Mistreatment” (1996); Wood, “Effect of Child and Family Poverty on Child Health in the United States” (2003).

22 Peterson, “Bono Visits Bush at the White House” (2005, retrieved from; Traub, “The Statesman” (2005).

23 A complete transcript of Bush’s Jackson Square speech can be found at

24 Quoted in Traub (2005).

25 Moyo, Dead Aid (2009), xviii; Lowry, The Construction of “Needy” Subjects (1998), 53.

26 Haskell, “No Work, Two Children and a Mounting Pile of Bills” (2009).

27 Edelman, “Forgotten Stories about Forgotten People” (2001); Kendall, Framing Class (2005), 94-95, 124-28; Loseke, “The Whole Spirit of Modern Philanthropy” (1997), 429-30.

28 Harrington, The Other America (1962); William J. Clinton Foundation Annual Report (2006),; Havens and Schervish, A Golden Age of Philanthropy? (2006),

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