THE BLOG
03/03/2014 03:41 pm ET Updated May 03, 2014

Taking Inequality Into Our Own Hands

President Obama emphatically told the nation during his State of the Union address in January that he won't let Congress derail his ambition to mitigate income inequality. "Wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that's what I'm going to do."

This is a monumental declaration. Even though the president can only institute piecemeal changes by executive order, he is setting a powerful example for private citizens to follow. Regardless of our different political allegiances, most Americans believe the level of inequality in this country is unfair. There is similar consensus that charitable organizations can be trusted much more than government to solve social problems. So instead of potentially becoming disillusioned because sweeping changes like raising the minimum wage won't win Congressional approval during the remainder of Obama's term, we too can take inequality into our own hands.

Our charitable giving has enormous prospects for expanding access to opportunity. We donated $316 billion in 2012. Adjusted for inflation, this is about 2.5 times the amount contributed in 1972. And the power of our giving will grow considerably over the coming decades. Baby Boomers are bequeathing more wealth to their heirs than any prior generation of Americans ever has. The Boston College Center on Wealth & Philanthropy estimates this amount could reach $41 trillion by 2055.

To see how dramatically our generosity can enable struggling Americans to embark on paths toward success, consider what happened after 33-year old Joel received a phone call eight years ago. He'd dropped out of college at 20 to help his parents, who were lapsing on their house payments after falling prey to a predatory lending scam. The call was from a mentor who had greatly impacted Joel after he left school in 11th grade. She worked for YouthBuild, a nonprofit which runs 273 programs nationwide that enable high-school dropouts to earn their GED and gain valuable skills in the construction trades. Joel's mentor was calling since it had been quite some time since they'd spoken. She was concerned because she'd heard he wasn't doing well. She soon called again, this time to say YouthBuild had an open paid staff position and she thought he'd be a great fit.

Since Joel started working as a mentor to kids facing similar circumstances to what he had experienced growing up, his life has steadily moved forward. He and his wife saved up enough money to purchase a home two years ago and he's back in school part time, continuing the pursuit of his bachelor's degree that he cut short in his mid-20s. He was recently promoted to Director of Leadership Development at YouthBuild.

Lots of other worthy charities are also doing significant work to restore the American dream. Like YouthBuild, many teach at-risk youngsters marketable job skills. Others offer kids an enriched early childhood education, make college more accessible, or move the chronically homeless into permanent housing.

Reputable groups like Venture Philanthropy Partners, Root Cause, and REDF vet these charities. These groups identify particular organizations that are making a significant social impact and that use their funds wisely. Indeed, there are many nonprofits from coast to coast with track records of offering second chances to struggling Americans who otherwise would have dim prospects for moving their lives forward.

Of course, philanthropy is just a drop in the bucket compared to the resources government has for mitigating inequality. This means our generosity can't change the unequal conditions vast segments of the population experience. Yet, it can enable individuals living in economically fragile circumstances to access greater job, housing, and educational opportunities.

Indeed, each of us has the power to help these individuals achieve successes that would be unimaginable if not for the unsung work of so many worthy charities across the U.S. Now is an opportune time to join the president in his efforts to offer struggling Americans second chances for getting ahead in life. We need no legislative approval to do so!

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