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You’re Richer Than You Think

• January 22, 2014 • 10:00 AM

(Photo: winnond/Shutterstock)

While you might not be part of the one percent, you’re probably not giving as much to charity as you could.

A few years ago, The New York Times ran a front-page story on “working-class millionaires.” The reporter found not one, but a handful of Silicon Valley millionaires who didn’t feel rich. One of these folks actually said, “a few million doesn’t go as far as it used to.” On Sunday, the paper ran an op-ed from a former hedge-fund trader who confessed his addiction to money. His lede: “In my last year on Wall Street my bonus was $3.6 million—and I was angry because it wasn’t big enough.”

It’s easy to ridicule the rich, and getting easier all the time. Oxfam released its report on global inequality last week, announcing that the richest 85 people in the world own as much as the bottom half of the population. The global one-percenters are worth $110 trillion: 65 times more than the bottom 3.5 billion.

But chances are if you read the report, then you are part of the problem. That is to say, if you are literate, have access to the Internet, can afford electricity to power some kind of a smart device, and have the leisure time to read, then you are at least wealthy enough to do more for the world’s poor. The 85 richest people may deserve the lion’s share of the blame for global inequality, but none of us is blameless.

We can’t just pay our taxes and cross our fingers for structural change: charity is needed now, and most of us can afford it. Fighting for higher minimum wages, the end of tax loopholes, increased foreign aid, the enforcement of financial regulations, and larger investments in health care and education isn’t enough.

It’s easy, even a little delightful, to demonize the one percent, but their greed is only a magnification of our own.

Greed is a suit that’s tailor made: it finds a way to fit every lifestyle, no matter how much or how little you earn. It will always be easier to look at the super-rich and pity ourselves than it will be to look at the super-poor and realize how much we have to give. The economic tide may be raising the yachts higher and higher, but even those of us in dinghies and lifeboats can help the billions who are drowning.

It’s uncomfortable to say this in a time of economic uncertainty for this country, when many are unemployed and others are underemployed, but there are still many of us whose poverty is mostly imagined: we struggle to pay for the lifestyles we think we deserve when billions struggle to live. The inconvenient truth is that most of us have more than we need and spend more than we should.

For me, charity has always been tied to tithing, not the scraps that remain when I’ve paid my bills and put some money toward my debts, but 10 percent off the top of whatever I make. I find that if I don’t put money aside as soon as I have it, then there’s always a way to justify not donating it. My conviction to donate, whether it’s to my church or the Red Cross, is a religious one, but it needn’t be.

Peter Singer’s incredible book The Life You Can Save offers a robust secular account of charity, arguing that we should all donate at least one percent of our net income, setting the bar lower than almost any holy book. Singer says that we all have at least one luxury we can afford to forfeit: eating out, buying clothes not because we need them but because the ones we have are no longer stylish, drinking bottled water, upgrading technology we already own, expensive vacations, and more.

Charity is a habit, and, like any habit, it takes cultivation. One of Singer’s most persuasive arguments is that we have to change our culture of greed into a culture of giving—and not only at the top. Most of us live with the fiction that we’ll give more as soon as we have more, but then raise the threshold for charity whenever our income increases; no matter how much we have, we always assuage ourselves that we need more before we can afford to give.

It’s easy, even a little delightful, to demonize the one percent, but their greed is only a magnification of our own; they might be hoarding billions, but most of us can afford to spare at least a few dollars. Even if we’re not “rich,” most of us aren’t “poor,” certainly not compared to the global population.

It will always be easier to rage against the one percent than to scrutinize our own wealth. Last week, I shook my fist at the Oxfam report while drinking a chai latte with the other, then emailed a friend from my iPhone to rant about those 85 moguls who own half the world. Trouble is, I’m a mogul in my own life: the iPhone is newer than it needs to be, I ate out twice last week, and I saw a movie the other day because it’s Oscar season. Yes, I have debts and I can’t even see the super-rich from my rung of America’s income brackets, but there are still more than a few luxuries in my life. I like to think they’re essentials, but like almost everyone, I have a talent for rationalizing my spending.

When Peter Singer writes that 19,000 children die every single day because of preventable, poverty-related causes, he’s not blaming their deaths on 85 individuals or a single percent of the world’s population: he’s blaming the rest of us, too. The rich might be able to do more, but we can all do something. Mammon isn’t just a mistress for the rich, but a companion for us all, whatever our percent.

Casey N. Cep
Casey N. Cep is a writer from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. She has written for the New Republic, the New York Times, the New Yorker, and the Paris Review. Follow her on Twitter @cncep.

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