The Joys and Dilemmas of Wealth

Alliance magazine

According to surveys of very wealthy Americans conducted by the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College, there is a strong correlation between feelings of economic security and willingness to give.

In 2006, Paul Schervish, who runs the Center, and his colleague John Havens concluded that, on average, the 98 per cent of US families who earn less than $300,000 a year give roughly 2.3 per cent of their income to charity. Families earning more than $300,000 give away about 4.4 per cent, while those who earn $400,000 to $499,000 a year give 5.5 per cent. With higher incomes, the statistics are unreliable because of sample sizes.

More recently, using a 2006 grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Center has been conducting a survey of the ultra-wealthy – those with a net worth of at least $25 million – entitled The Joys and Dilemmas of Wealth (the study is still under way). Among the questions asked is ‘What is the minimum level of net worth you would need to feel extremely secure?’ The answer to this varies according to respondents’ circumstances. Someone with $50 million tied up in a business may feel more precarious than a person with a modest lifestyle and $5 million in safe investments.

In a recent interview published in the New York Times, Schervish spoke of the survey as not simply a piece of research but a way of prompting reflection by respondents about their giving. A group of wealthy individuals who were testing an early version of the survey said the questions made them think hard about their philanthropic choices. He believes it is possible that increasing giving could lead to a kind of spiritual awakening among America’s very wealthy.

‘This is my basic definition of philanthropy – it’s paying attention and responding to the needs of others precisely because that person is in need,’ he said. Clearly, both rich and poor can do that, but when the very wealthy do it, says Schervish, it creates not just ripples but powerful tides.

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