Thanksgiving, Stewardship and the Rich

There are hundreds of thousands of Illinoisans who are millionaires, according to public and private studies, and given the economy, it’s not illogical to appeal to them for help.But some criticize the rich as detached, unfeeling or both, which seems far too much of a generalization or just too harsh.

Still, November is when we celebrate the harvest and have Thanksgiving for whatever plenty we see, and it’s when many Christian churches mark “stewardship month,” so the time may be right to consider what wealth is, and ought to be, or do.

Illinois has more than 409,000 millionaires, MSN Money reports, and 41% of them live in Cook County. That means that 59% live elsewhere in the state, presumably some in the Peoria area. What does that have to do with how the community lives, how society is governed?

First, government is immensely influenced by the rich, whether in their self-serving contributions to political candidates or issues, or in their occasional noblesse oblige responsibility to live up to their standing and help by starting businesses, hiring workers and, OK, making more money.

But there’s a third way the wealthy are intertwined with government. Government has an image as a provider of programs that try to help the needy, whether the elderly or the poor. And food stamps, Medicaid and other social-welfare services together cost $365 billion, according to the nonprofit Corporation for Enterprise Development (CFED). However, government assistance to the wealthiest Americas – subsidies such as special tax deductions, credits, preferential rates, etc. – total $384 billion.

That’s not enough for some millionaires, apparently.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman of Princeton University recently wrote about the irate segment of the nation’s population: “The angry minority is angry indeed, consisting of people who feel that things to which they are entitled are being taken away. I’m talking about the rich.”

Krugman says that the privileged – who need not fret about jobs, foreclosures or health coverage – are outraged at sharing the costs of civilization. Others echo his assertions.

In fact, the minority most unwilling to assimilate into mainstream society isn’t undocumented immigrants or Muslims, according to Ulrike Winkelmann in Germany’s publication Der Freitag. That minority is, again, the rich, who live in relative isolation, send kids to private or elite schools, conduct business with their wealthy peers, and socialize almost exclusively with others of their economic status.

Why haven’t Tea Partiers so annoyed about some people not integrating into workplaces, schools and neighborhoods quickly enough for them “turned their attention to the rich?” it’s asked.

Indeed, many of the rich are spoiled rotten, concedes private banker Gerald Aquilina of Barclays Wealth Management. reported Aquilina recently remarking to a group of bankers in Zurich that the wealthy are “a nasty bunch of people who are only getting nastier.”

Aquilina added that the rich “assume their wealth is entirely the result of their brilliance.”

The rich are ruder, he said, “keener to punish others” and less charitable.

But now, some of the most affluent Americans are challenging their elite brethren to chip in. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and David Rockefeller through a “Great Givers” concept have asked the 400 richest Americans to donate half their net worth to charity. Since those 400 alone hold $1.2 trillion, that could mean $600 billion to help others.

Already, multi-millionaires including Barry Diller, Michael Bloomberg and T. Boone Pickens have agreed, according to The American Prospect.

Such action would be more than a mere gesture. Big boosts – important differences – could come from such a huge financial windfall.

Gates started blazing that 21st century philanthropy trail with the Gates Foundation. Established in the mid-1990s from the wealth generated by Microsoft – and helped when Buffett bequeathed most of his $44 billion fortune to it in 2006 – the foundation now has assets of more than $30 billion, disbursing 10% of that last year alone.

But the need remains, around the world and around the block. More than 1 billion people live in extreme poverty, chronically undernourished, with little access to clean water. In Peoria, about 20% of local families with children younger than 18 lived below the poverty line last year, according to the latest Census data. The poverty threshold for a couple with one child is an annual household income of $18,310, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The number of Peoria families in poverty is more than 30% higher than a year ago.

Two years ago, Gates said, “The world is getting better, but it’s not getting better fast enough, and it’s not getting better for everyone.”

Two weeks ago, Lutheran minister Megan Torgerson said to Forward writer Josh Nathan-Kazis, “Everything you have is God’s to begin with. [Ask yourself,] ‘What can I do with it?’”

Will downstate millionaires ask? Will they answer?

Contact Bill Knight at

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