THE BLOG

Season of Getting, Season of Giving

12/30/2013 11:57 am ET | Updated Mar 01, 2014
  • Barbara Harman President, Catalogue for Philanthropy: Greater Washington and Executive Director, Harman Family Foundation

There is a new kind of inequality in our nation and it isn't between blacks and whites, gay people and straight, or men and women, though these inequalities remain. Income inequality -- the new buzz word, or really buzz phrase, that has emerged in recent years and gained momentum in recent months -- is really about the gap, the no-man's land, that divides people not by race or gender but by economic status. The numbers, and their implications, are staggering.

In the nation as a whole, the average net assets of the top 1 percent of the population are 8.4 million which amounts to 70 times -that's right, 70 times -- the average net worth of the rest of the population. According to UC Berkeley economist Emmanuel Saez, average real income during what some have deemed the "lost decade" (2002-12) went up 86 percent for the top 1 percent, while for everyone else it went up 6.6 percent. Hold on for one more stat: from 2007-2009, a period that includes the market crash and "recovery" from the recession, 95 percent of the recovery went to the top 1 percent.

In our nation's capital, income inequality reflects this national trend, but with a twist. Studies released by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities reveal that the richest 5 percent of individuals in the District of Columbia bring in an average of $436,900, while the poorest 20 percent average $17,000 and the poorest 5 percent clock in at $9100. This last figure reveals wealth disparity, or income inequality, at its starkest: on average, the wealthiest among us make nearly 40 times what the poorest do.

What complicates the picture locally is the fact that the Washington region has a greater share (1/3rd) of what are called "super zips" than any region in the country (Washington Post, "A World Apart"). A super zip is an interesting hybrid: it includes people who are in the top 5 percent for income AND for education. When super zips are contiguous, as they are here, it is possible to live one's daily life without ever encountering people who are different from oneself -- different because they lack a college (or even a high school) degree, live on less (even a lot less, even on virtually nothing) -- and whose daily lives are, effectively, invisible. A century and a half ago, author (and, later, British Prime Minister) Benjamin Disraeli referred to the rich and the poor as "two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy, who are as ignorant of each other's habits, thoughts, and feelings as if they were dwellers in different zones or inhabitants of different planets."

At the intersection of income inequality and the super zip (the "different zone" or "planet"), the problem takes on an even darker meaning -- and creates an imperative that has particular force at this time of year. People who have no experience of, or exposure to, those who live in the other "nation" are unlikely to experience the empathy that generates giving. They have the capacity to give -- if income inequality shows us anything, it shows us that -- but if they can't see what need looks like or if they lack knowledge of where to give, then will they give? We can advocate (and should) for an increase in the minimum wage, an extension of unemployment benefits, and a dead halt to cuts in key programs like SNAP and TANF. But as individuals, we should also be, we can also afford to be, more philanthropic.

Research shows that the poor give a greater percentage of their income to charity than the rich, and that they do so because they see before them on a daily basis just what real need really looks like. The rest of us have an exposure problem: where the need is greatest it is also the most invisible. What we don't witness we can't experience, and what we can't experience we don't connect with, and what we don't connect with we aren't likely to support.

In the final days of this year -- when giving picks up speed because it has the added benefit of reducing tax liability -- we might all take a moment to learn about causes that are addressing the needs of the neediest among us. One way to do this is to explore the Catalogue for Philanthropy: Greater Washington, which features over 300 vetted community charities that are all based right here, in our nation's -- or two nations -- capital. The Catalogue shines a light on the invisible among us, tells their stories, and opens up to all of us worlds of need that we might otherwise not experience. For many in our region, this has been a season of getting. We can also make it a season of giving.