Mean millionaires keep charity out of mind and out of pocket

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The Independent Online
THE RICH are getting richer. Soaring stock markets have made large numbers of executives and entrepreneurs massively wealthy, while the tax cuts of the Reagan and Thatcher era mean they can keep more of it. Compared with a decade or so ago, incomes are much more unequal in the Anglo-Saxon countries. So why are the rich getting meaner too?

New figures for charitable giving in the UK show that since 1992 most of the rise in charities' incomes has come from either their own trading activities - those now ultra-hip high street second-hand shops - or from higher fees and grants.

The amount from legacies has climbed, but slowly and from a low base, while voluntary donations have hardly shifted. Corporate donations have increased thanks to high company profits, but the total is a piffling pounds 300m out of a total of about pounds 13bn for the top 3,000 charities, according to figures from the Charities Aid Foundation.

No less a champion of free-market economics and all out wealth-creation than the Economist magazine last week lambasted the new generation of multi-millionaires for their meanness. Only Ted Turner and George Soros earned a philanthropy kitemark.

With the economy and share prices in fine fettle on both sides of the Atlantic, it is clear that the sense of social responsibility borne by the very well-off in the late 19th century - a comparable era of great fortunes and entrepreneurial success - has all but evaporated.

One possibility for the new meanness is simply a general lack of moral uprightness in these post-modern times, extending across all income groups. Certainly, charitable giving has diminished among the not so well-off, as well as the rich. The rich are, after all, no different from the rest of us except in having more money to not give away.

Another possibility is that modern wealth is more ephemeral than old wealth. The super-rich are more likely to have made their millions through higher share prices on the stock market or success in a fast-moving high technology business than in making goods for which there is a solid, long- lasting mass market.

The owners of oil reserves and manufacturers of textiles at the end of the 19th century could foresee no challenge to their status. But even Mr Gates, the man who put the Bill into billionaire, worries about competitors eroding his overwhelming advantages in a matter of years rather than decades.

The other question for the rich today is what they could do with their money. The obvious gaps arising from the desperate poverty that pre-dated the welfare state - the need for libraries and schools for the many, for decent housing, for food for the huddled urban masses - are thankfully no longer with us. A millionaire wanting to make a big gesture today will probably have to resort to something pretty elitist - a library at an Oxbridge college, say. And, after all, recognition is one of the big rewards of philanthropy.

Yet the need for the wealthy to spread their riches is greater now than it has been at any time in the past 100 years. This is not just a matter of avoiding a backlash against gross inequality, although there is every sign that this is under way.

More important is the fact that the state appears to have reached its limits, while public expectations continue to rise. There is scant prospect of government money reaching a lot further than it does already in health, education and housing. These needs will fall increasingly to the non-profit and charity sector.

Here, then, is a role for private donors: funding amenities that will benefit large numbers of their fellow citizens. All it needs is for the philanthropists to step forward with their chequebooks.