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Reducing Inequality Through Philanthropy?

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The steady growth of inequality in this great land of ours is much discussed, as well it should be. Philanthropy can contribute to inequality, lessen it or be neutral. Something to think about.

A contribution to the Metropolitan Opera increases inequality because it adds to assets devoted to the rich. Never mind that it has programs geared to the not so rich. Americans who are poor, 46 million by government statistics, are not watching the death of Carmen.

Similarly, but not so obvious, contributions to The New York Public Library, Central Park or The Metropolitan Museum also add to the assets of the rich. And also to the assets of the not so rich -- down to the middle class. Not to the poor. They are not likely to be found at The Temple of Dendur.

When David Koch lavishes funds on the opera, ballet and Lincoln Center, he is increasing inequality, as he is by lowering his taxes, some of which goes to government programs for the poor. In addition, he expends large sums to influence politicians and voters to reduce funds for food stamps and other benefits to the needy. Through his enormous income, giving upscale and pushing downscale, he is a champion of inequality.

A noted philanthropist (so noted I have forgotten his name) said, "I would rather reduce pain than spread joy." Me too. If one were to truly prioritize, the biggest bang for the buck would be non profits like Doctors Without Borders, Oxfam, The Worldwide Orphans Fund and others that save lives.

But the world of non profits is as wide as the earth and as diverse as its inhabitants. From the Coalition for the Homeless to Harvard and Yale, from the Bronx Childrens Museum to The Environmental Defense Fund. Each makes a positive mark. And perhaps saving the earth is more important than saving lives. And perhaps the opera enriches even those who do not attend. And David Koch is a generous supporter of hospitals and medical research.

Reducing inequality through philanthropy rather than increasing it? Complicated. But something to think about.