The Future Belongs to Those Who Know it Belongs to Everyone
In 1982, I was appointed welfare commissioner for the state of Connecticut. During a TV news appearance early in my tenure, a reporter asked me whether I had ever been on food stamps. Of course, I had not. I had grown up in Connecticut, where my childhood had been provided for by a privileged family, and my adulthood launched at an elite university.
“So how do you think you’re ever going to understand the problems of families on food stamps?” she asked.
I struggled with that question for nearly a decade as I traveled around the state meeting hundreds of families on food stamps and welfare, most of them in communities of color that had been worst hit by the economic recession of the early 1980s. I continue to struggle with it today. The widespread existence of poverty in a country as affluent as the United States undermines the premise of self-governance and the possibility of a common purpose. Democracy cannot thrive when it is possible for the wealthiest state of the union to be home to two of its poorest cities. That state in 1982 was Connecticut.
The economic gap that divided Connecticut almost 40 years ago reflected a persistent and growing national economic fault line that deepens every year. Since the 1980s, the incomes of the top one percent of American households have risen seven times faster than those of the bottom 20 percent. The wealthiest one percent of Americans now controls more wealth than the bottom 90 percent. And the average CEO makes nearly 300 times as much as the average worker. Not since the 1930s have we seen such levels of inequality.
What has changed in the 21st century is how the elite—the top 0.1 percent of earners in the United States—think about the gap. In 1887, Andrew Carnegie famously said, “The man who dies rich, dies disgraced.”
But in their lifetimes, Carnegie and his contemporaries—including John D. Rockefeller—focused their admirable philanthropic efforts not so much on the distribution of wealth as on its management. “The problem of our age is the proper administration of wealth,” Carnegie wrote in the Gospel of Wealth, “so that the ties of brotherhood may still bind together the rich and poor in harmonious relationship.”
By contrast, a growing number of the ultra-rich today acknowledge the deeper societal risks posed by vast economic inequality. We are living in a “lopsided, barbell nation,” writes Hollywood heiress Abigail Disney, where the wealthy “pad their already grotesque advantages” through political influence. Hedge fund manager Ray Dalio warns, if nothing changes, “we will have great conflict and some form of revolution.” And in August, 181 of the country’s top corporate executives, led by JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon, released a statement redefining the responsibility of corporations to serve all stakeholders—including customers, suppliers, and communities—not just shareholders.
The heightened concern among American elites has amplified the issue of economic inequality in the public policy discourse. Does this revelation signal an opening to fundamentally rethink our economic system? To the extent that it is motivated by a sense of injustice, rather than fear of the proverbial barbarians at the gate, perhaps it does. But the worried wealthy are late to the game. Poor and low-income people have been organizing around inequality for decades. In his 1967 speech “Where Do We Go From Here?”, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., observed, “We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.” The following year, King’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference brought together religious, labor, and rights groups to launch the Poor People’s Campaign. They knew that economic inequality was incompatible with the realization of civil rights and thus democracy itself. And today we are experiencing hyper capitalism and degraded democracy.
Where does this leave the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, which bears the name of one of the richest families in history? How can foundation philanthropy disentangle itself from the vast infrastructure of economic inequality that gave birth to it? How can we help correct the economic balance so that capitalism serves democracy—not the other way around?
Today I look back at my earliest encounters with inequality in 1980s Connecticut and how those experiences continue to shape my work as the president of a $1.2 billion foundation. Although the Rockefeller Brothers Fund does not have an explicit programmatic commitment to combating economic inequality, we recognize that the widening wealth gap devastates the vital and inclusive democracy that our Democratic Practice program strives to advance, both in the United States and globally. At the same time, we recognize that elite institutions such as ours have only a supporting role to play in advancing the change that we seek.
Poor and low-income people have been systematically excluded from democratic discourse throughout our nation’s history. They remain excluded today. Our guiding principle as a billion-dollar foundation that sees extreme economic inequality as an existential threat to democracy, therefore, is to center the voices from the frontlines. The playing field is tilted in favor of the wealthy; they will not be the ones to tilt it back in favor of the people. Top-down solutions from the rich and powerful, no matter how well intentioned, will only perpetuate the conditions that undermine our democracy. We need to give those for whom poverty and inequality are lived realities—the families I met in Connecticut in the 1980s and the millions across this country today—a seat at the table. We must let their experiences and ideas guide our work toward greater equity. We need to let them lead.
First, we must fund organizations whose leadership reflects the diversity of our society. Poverty disproportionately affects communities of color, which historically have been denied access to wealth through structural mechanisms like discriminatory loans, segregated education, and property redlining. If current trends continue, the median wealth of Black Americans will fall to zero by 2053. The Latino population will suffer the same fate two decades later. “We are screaming toward economic apartheid,” says Keesha Gaskins-Nathan, director for Democratic Practice–U.S. at the RBF.
In the fight against inequality, it is essential that we support research, policy development, and advocacy produced by organizations launched, staffed, and led by people of color. We must do better than the five percent of philanthropic dollars that currently go to support their work. Civil society needs leaders with diverse backgrounds to navigate the challenges, new and old, of sustaining our democracy. By funding leadership development among people of color and the organizations they head, philanthropy can help build the political power needed to realize the promise of a nation where all are created equal.
Second, we must fund movements, rather than moments. The practice of philanthropy can sometimes promote, unintentionally, silos in civil society, as grantees compete for project dollars by trying to fill a certain niche, thereby ending up pigeon-holed into narrow lines of work. In the worst cases, this has stunted the cross-disciplinary collaboration necessary to advance meaningful structural reform.
Rather than funding moments that we think will pave the way toward certain policy outcomes, we should fund the connective tissue that binds social movements and let leaders on the ground define the path to realizing shared values of democracy, equity, and inclusivity. We can do this with long-term general support for networks and intersectional efforts, movement infrastructure, strategic frameworks, organizer development, and other field-building endeavors. Building capacity builds power.
Finally, we must address racial equity in philanthropy, starting with our own organizations. The legacies of privilege and structural bias afflict philanthropic institutions whose financial assets are the product of inequality. Even the most progressive institutions have organizational cultures and management practices that wittingly and unwittingly sustain exclusion, prejudice, and alienation. Uncovering and redressing inequity takes hard work and deep commitment. I know from our own experience at the RBF how difficult this work can be. Yet it is essential: If foundations hope to help heal suffering in our society, we must attend to the pain that lives, often beneath the surface, in our own organizations.
The economic divide that tears through our country today is inextricably linked to other inequities that have repeatedly tested our democracy over two-and-a-half centuries since its birth: structural racism, gender discrimination, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant bias. As philanthropists in an interdependent world, we must understand that we cannot address any of these without acknowledging them all. We must encourage and support intersectional, interdisciplinary, inclusive work. As the pathbreaking poet and feminist Audre Lorde wrote, “Tomorrow belongs to those of us who conceive of it as belonging to everyone.”