Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Your Money

donation-can

(Photo: winnond/Shutterstock)

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.

More From Casey N. Cep

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 31 • 4:00 PM

Should the Victims of the War on Drugs Receive Reparations?

A drug war Truth and Reconciliation Commission along the lines of post-apartheid South Africa is a radical idea proposed by the Green Party. Substance.com asks their candidates for New York State’s gubernatorial election to tell us more.


October 31 • 2:00 PM

India’s Struggle to Get Reliable Power to Hundreds of Millions of People

India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi is known as a “big thinker” when it comes to energy. But in his country’s case, could thinking big be a huge mistake?


October 31 • 12:00 PM

In the Picture: SNAP Food Benefits, Birthday Cake, and Walmart

In every issue, we fix our gaze on an everyday photograph and chase down facts about details in the frame.


October 31 • 10:15 AM

Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.


October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.


Follow us


Levels of Depression Could Be Evaluated Through Measurements of Acoustic Speech

Engineers find tell-tale signs in speech patterns of the depressed.

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.