America’s love-hate affair with billionaires took an uncomfortable twist this spring: As the coronavirus spread across the country, both fans and critics wondered what these titans of capitalism would do to address this devastating health and economic crisis.
The answer so far: Not much, when accounting for their vast personal fortunes.
A Washington Post survey of the nation’s 50 wealthiest people and families, who have a collective net worth of nearly $1.6 trillion, found that their publicly announced donations amount to about $1 billion, which sounds like a lot of money but adds up to less than .1 percent of their combined wealth. More than half of these billionaires have publicly donated cash and a few say they have given something – money or in-kind contributions – but declined to specify how much. But almost a third have not announced any donations and declined to comment or did not reply to requests for comment.
And even many of the billionaires who have announced donations to covid-19 relief efforts have given amounts that are relatively paltry when compared to the median net worth of an American household, which registers at $97,300, a number that accounts for a family’s assets and subtracting debts, according to the federal Survey of Consumer Finances. To put billionaires’ covid-19 giving in perspective, The Post used this figure to calculate what each of their donations would equate to for the median American donor.
To date, only two billionaires have really stepped into the spotlight: Bill Gates, the dean of billionaire philanthropy, and a surprising newcomer to charitable giving: Twitter’s Jack Dorsey.
Gates, who had a net worth of $103 billion in April when The Post began its survey, has spearheaded an aggressive and comprehensive public campaign to mitigate and eradicate the virus, spending about $300 million to date through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
The foundation, which has given more than $50 billion in grants since its inception, “is focused on investing its resources where governments can’t, and corporations won’t,” Gates said in an interview. Gates has emerged as a vocal leader during the current pandemic, using his decades of work fighting global disease as a base of knowledge to offer guidance and strategy on how to deal with the spread of covid-19. In terms of donations from his personal wealth, for the median American donor, Gates’s giving to date equates to about $283.
But the most publicly generous billionaire to date is Dorsey, who ranks 147th on the list of wealthiest Americans, according to Forbes. In early April, Dorsey pledged $1 billion of his shares in the mobile payment company Square – about 28 percent of his then-$3.6 billion net worth – to covid-19 relief and charities. For the median American, Dorsey’s giving equates to more than $27,000.
Dorsey, who has disbursed more than $88 million since early April and tracks his giving in an open-source spreadsheet, made the announcement in a series of tweets: “Why now? The needs are increasingly urgent, and I want to see the impact in my lifetime. … I hope this inspires others to do something similar.”
Nearly two months later, Dorsey’s call for action by America’s super-rich appears to have been largely ignored.
Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, the wealthiest man in the world with a fortune of $143 billion and who is also the owner of The Washington Post, gave $100 million to Feeding America and up to $25 million for All in WA, a statewide relief effort in Washington. For the median American, Bezos’ giving is the equivalent of donating $85. His aerospace company, Blue Origin, pledged to 3-D print face shields for front line workers but did not disclose the value of that contribution.
In terms of public giving relative to his net worth, hedge-fund billionaire Ray Dalio, whose net worth is $18 billion, ranks as the most generous among the 50 wealthiest Americans. He has pledged more than $100 million to efforts including child care for hospital workers, food for the needy, and laptops for children of lower-income families. His giving to date, for the median American, equates to about $589.
Among the richest Americans, Dalio is the exception, not the rule when it comes to giving for covid relief.
Hedge fund manager Steven Cohen, worth $14 billion, has donated more than $6 million to covid-19 relief efforts, or about $43 for the median American. Los Angeles Rams owner Stan Kroenke, worth $10 billion, has given $500,000 publicly to launch a covid-19 response fund, which equates to $5 for the median American. Media magnate Donald Newhouse, worth $12.5 billion, has given $1 million to the World Health Organization.
“We are humbled by the enormity of the human suffering caused by this virus and the challenge of helping so many in need,” Newhouse said in a statement announcing the gift in late March.
To the median American, Newhouse’s gift was the equivalent of $8.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, worth $67 billion, personally has given $58 million for medical research and aid for the Bay Area – which equates to $84 for the median American – and his company has donated $100 million to small businesses. The Walmart Foundation donated $25 million to food banks and local community relief, but none of the five members of the Walton family on the Top 50 list – with a total net worth of nearly $200 billion – have announced any public donations. Beloved investing guru Warren Buffett lent his private jet to deliver medical supplies to New York and voiced an animated service announcement on how to properly wash hands, but has not made any public monetary gifts related to the pandemic.
John Menard Jr., worth $15 billion, is the 80-year-old founder of Menards, the Midwestern chain of home improvement stores. In March, the company publicly apologized after Michigan’s attorney general accused the chain of price gouging on face masks, bleach and other cleaning supplies. Menard is among the prominent business leaders named by Trump to coronavirus economic advisory committees. Neither he nor his company have announced any covid-19 related donations, and he declined to comment for this story.
Billionaires’ giving habits
The philanthropy of the billionaire class tends to reflect their personal histories and passions. Former New York mayor and presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg, worth $52 billion, has donated close to $75 million – about $139 to the median American – and tweets almost every day about strategies for combating the virus – including criticism of the Trump administration’s response. L.A. Clippers owner Steve Ballmer, worth $62 billion, also donated $75 million to three cities – Detroit, Los Angeles, and Seattle – where he has close ties. Ballmer’s giving, to the median American, is the equivalent of $118.
And what to make of Tesla’s Elon Musk, worth $37 billion, who first dismissed concerns (“The coronavirus panic is dumb”), then loudly announced he was giving hospitals 1,000 much-needed ventilators – which instead turned out to be airway pressure machines. Or Rupert Murdoch, worth $16 billion, whose spokesman suggested he was giving for covid relief anonymously, although any such charitable giving would be uncharacteristic: In 2014, Inside Philanthropy reported that Murdoch’s personal foundation hadn’t made a single donation in six years. In 2016, federal tax records show, Murdoch dissolved the foundation. “There are causes that they’re supporting. … It’s just something that we’re not really sharing right now,” said Eric Kuo, senior vice president at the Rubenstein public relations firm, which represents the Murdoch family.
Spokespeople for some of these billionaires pointed to money given by their corporations, not personally or through foundations. A spokesman for Blackstone chief executive Stephen Schwarzman didn’t disclose any personal charitable spending, but highlighted $15 million the investment firm has given to relief efforts in New York. Schwarzman is personally worth almost $17 billion. The Mars family, worth $54 billion, donated $20 million in cash and in-kind donations from their company, but have disclosed no personal giving.
These millions of much-needed aid are going to charities and other organizations desperately trying to help people cope with health care, job loss and other casualties of the moment. And this is likely to be a long-running issue, possibility stretching into years, so there’s plenty of time for billionaires to do and give more. But, given the resources available, some critics of the richest Americans say their initial public donations have been surprisingly small in the face of this national emergency.
“I don’t mean to be uncharitable, but much of this is self-serving rubbish,” wrote former labor secretary Robert Reich in a widely circulated column in The Guardian last month. “The amounts involved are tiny relative to the fortunes behind them.”
The relative stinginess of some of America’s wealthiest, to their critics, is particularly outrageous because the financial devastation of the pandemic, so far, appears to have spared many of them. From March through May, America’s billionaires saw their fortunes grow by more than $430 billion, according to a report released last week by the Institute for Policy Studies, a liberal think tank that argues for expanded taxes for corporations and the wealthy.
“Billionaires did not cause this pandemic,” wrote Omar Campo and Chuck Collins, co-authors of the report, in a recent op-ed. “But four decades of billionaire tax cuts have increased the fragility of the public response infrastructure.”
Whose responsibility is it?
The larger question, of course, is how much any private citizen, no matter how rich, can or should do. The United States has more billionaires than any other country – about 630, depending on the undulations of the stock market – although not as many per capita as a dozen other countries, including Sweden and Ireland. And the richest Americans have staggering fortunes, especially compared with the rest of the population. But even all that money can’t adequately address a global pandemic.
“The level of human suffering is extraordinary,” says Darrell M. West, author of “Billionaires: Reflections on the Upper Crust.” “I haven’t seen a lot of effort other than Bill Gates.” Even so, West explains, private donations are just a drop in the bucket. “The problem exists on such a massive scale that it’s really something government is going to have to address, not private individuals. Billionaires have a lot of money, but if you’re talking about spending trillions of dollars, that’s a government function, not a private function.”
Which is exactly what billionaire Carl Icahn thinks – addressing this pandemic is essentially the job of the government, but he also plans to make some personal donations to causes he believes are worthy.
The corporate raider turned investor, worth about $14 billion, says he’s committed to spending at least $21 million on covid-19 relief efforts, starting with a $3 million donation to the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York. He’s also created an $18 million covid-19 relief fund overseen by his charity, the Foundation for Greater Opportunity, that has disbursed more than $3 million so far, including $2.5 million to the Robin Hood Foundation, which works to fight poverty in New York.
Over the course of several phone conversations in recent weeks, Icahn – whose $21 million pledge is the equivalent of the median American donating $147 – expressed an evolving perspective on the role America’s billionaires should play in covid-19 crisis relief.
“I think a lot of them have been giving, and have been charitable,” Icahn said in April. “The government did a lot by increasing the unemployment insurance … a lot of people aren’t that needy, because they’re actually making more money to not go to work.”
By late May, however, his opinion had changed.
“This is a time when the wealthy have to really step up, to help those in need,” Icahn said. “I think the wealthy should be doing a whole lot more in this country.”
One thing billionaires could do more of, according to liberals , is pay taxes. The coronavirus disaster has sharpened the already contentious political debate about income inequality. Billionaires, many of whom were dismissive last year when Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., suggested they pay a greater share of taxes, have argued they use their wealth to create jobs, innovate and solve problems with the efficiency of business executives, not politicians. In terms of covid-19, that has not proved to be the case.
The very richest Americans now pay a smaller share of their income in taxes than they have at any time since the 1910s, according to “The Triumph of Injustice” by Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman, economics professors at University of California, Berkeley. In 1970, according to Saez and Zucman’s research, the richest Americans paid more than 50 percent of their income in taxes, twice as much as working-class individuals. By 2018, following the Trump tax cuts, that figure had dropped to 23 percent, on par or less than the rate paid by steelworkers, schoolteachers and retirees.
The result: The richest 1 percent in the country own more wealth than the bottom 90 percent combined. And the super rich keep getting super richer.
“What argument can justify that billionaires should pay less than each of us, and pay less and less as they get wealthier and wealthier?” Saez and Zucman wrote in their book, which published last year. “What principle could justify such an obviously perverse situation?”
Ten years ago, Gates and Buffett created the Giving Pledge, a promise from the richest individuals to donate at least half their wealth to philanthropic causes during their lifetimes or when they die. So far, 15 of the 50 wealthiest Americans have signed on. The pledge is a public gesture, not a binding contract, and it lets the rich decide when, how and why to give away their fortunes.
Several billionaires, through spokespeople, said they only give money anonymously.
“The Fidelity Foundations and the Johnson family have had a long and significant commitment to philanthropy,” wrote Vincent G. Loporchio, spokesman for Fidelity Investments and its chief executive, Abigail Johnson, worth $12.5 billion. “However, they have never sought promotion for their charitable donations; it is well known in the Boston community that the grants are anonymous.”
Experts in billionaires and philanthropy are skeptical of this defense, however, pointing to long-standing research that has found the most charitable Americans are the poorest – many of whom tithe as part of their faith.
“America’s wealthy do not look impressive in their generosity, as a percent of their income or wealth, compared to lower-income Americans,” said Rob Reich (no relation to the former labor secretary), a political science professor at Stanford and co-director of the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society.
If billionaires do give anonymously, there is no accountability or transparency.
But, to be fair, many do give millions publicly to a variety of causes that rely on their ongoing support – education, climate change, space exploration – and have continued to do so this year. The pandemic isn’t the only way to measure their giving, but it is a measure of how they contribute during a national emergency. It’s not an either/or: Billionaires could give away 90 percent of their money today and still live lives of unimaginable luxury.
“In general, the wealthy don’t give a lot,” says David Callahan, the founder of Inside Philanthropy, who calls billionaires’ pandemic response “shocking but not surprising.” In a world where bad things happen all the time, they see no particular reason to change.
Billionaires, explains Callahan, historically give about 1 percent of their wealth to charity every year. A big reason they don’t give more is that they think the world’s problems are complicated and they’re not confident of finding the best solutions – problems better addressed by the vast resources of governments rather than private individuals. “They see philanthropy’s role as coming up with solutions that aren’t going to be solved by government,” he says. “They want to achieve some sort of structural change. Very few of these billionaire philanthropists engage in ‘Band-Aid’ philanthropy.”
In short, they’d rather come up with the silver bullet or the genius invention that will go down in history rather than, say, feeding hungry people.
“These people don’t want to do stupid philanthropy,” says Callahan. “They want to do brilliant philanthropy. And they see giving money to address immediate human suffering as money down the drain. … These people are so anxious to be super smart and strategic and make big bets, that they don’t have enough of a big heart.”
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Editor’s Note: Estimated net worth information came from the Forbes Real Time Billionaires list on April 22. Data on the median net worth of a U.S. household, which is $97,300, came from the federal Survey of Consumer Finances, using 2016 dollars to calculate the billionaires’ giving in terms equivalent to the net worth of the median American donor.
The Washington Post’s Jay Greene and Steven Rich contributed to this report.