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America has long been characterized by the hopeful prospect of the chance to better one’s station in life. But that cheery prospect of “income mobility,” to use the public policy term of art, has been tarnished over the last decades and especially since the Great Recession—and that may be tarnishing the prospect of true philanthropy in the United States.

The depressing decline of income mobility in the United States is the subject of Yuval Levin’s cover story in this month’s Commentary, in which he notes:

…mobility has declined significantly in the last two decades, so that while most Americans are doing better than their parents did at the same age, they are often not doing as well as similarly situated families (and maybe even their own families) were doing ten or even 20 years ago. This is the most pressing way in which many Americans are feeling the sting of immobility these days, with stagnant wages creating the sense that they’re running in place.

As Levin describes, income mobility is likely to be the defining issue in the run up to the 2016 elections. But concerns about income mobility are not only shaping the political landscape, they have the potential to reshape the philanthropic landscape.

One way in which the decline in income mobility may change the philanthropic landscape is that it may prompt philanthropists to redirect their philanthropy. Some philanthropists may decide it is more important than ever to direct their gifts to institutions that enable people to rise economically, such as schools and universities. Others may decide that income inequality is so intractable that they should direct their philanthropy to other issues entirely.

But the deeper way in which the decline in income mobility may change the philanthropic landscape is that it may erode the public’s view that there truly is such a virtue as philanthropy.

True philanthropy flows from a sense of abundance and gratitude, and it is properly met with a recognition and appreciation for the philanthropist’s generosity.

The decline in income mobility is accompanied by a widening gap between the cultural and social experiences of the wealthy and the lower classes, as is well described in Charles Murray’s Coming Apart. That widening gap threatens to turn the sympathetic generosity that motives true philanthropy into something more like the noblesse oblige of aristocratic rather than democratic societies.

On the other side, the space for philanthropy is eroded when people conclude that the wealthy owe it to others to give away part of their wealth. When a giving away part of one’s fortune is “owed” by the wealthy to others, it becomes a matter of justice—and hence no longer truly a matter of philanthropy. We don’t “owe” gifts. That’s why philosopher David Hume described justice as the “jealous virtue”—justice is what we demand when we cannot rely on benevolence but must jealously insist on our rights. Likewise, the space for philanthropy is eroded when people suspect that wealthy philanthropists are motivated only by a self-interested desire to stave off social unrest.

Preserving a space for true philanthropy on the part of the wealthy in an age of declining income mobility will require both those who are not wealthy to be open to the possibility that philanthropists are genuinely motivated by benevolence rather than justice or self-interest and those who are in a position to be wealthy philanthropists to have the humility to be truly grateful for their fortunate situation and genuinely sympathetic to their fellow citizens.


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