A couple weeks ago, billionaire Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced that he would be donating $98.5 million to charitable organizations to fight homelessness across the United States. While the move garnered Bezos a fair bit of glowing press coverage, we have reservations about celebrating the world’s richest man for using the spectacle of philanthropy as a political shield against paying his fair share in taxes.
Bezos’ questionable motives for this particular act of charity are clear from his record. His alleged crusade against homelessness began a year ago, when he put his weight behind crushing a Seattle based tax on large corporations (including Amazon) that would have raised money for affordable housing. A couple of negative headlines later, Bezos’ announced his bold plan to donate $2 billion dollars to address homelessness. A year later, and after he put up $1 million toward supporting Amazon-friendly candidates for the Seattle city council elections ostensibly to prevent further taxation, we receive news that he’s beginning the first installment of his promise.
Public charitable giving, like Bezos’ donation, may come from a genuine concern, but philanthropic donations also serve as a distraction against negative press. There’s no photo opportunity for paying your taxes, but paying taxes is precisely what funds affordable housing projects, transportation upgrades and expansions, and social services that can help vulnerable people find stability. Most importantly, tax revenue is able to do these things on a scale that individual charitable giving simply can’t accomplish.
What’s more, this particular gift comes with a lot of fine print. One of the 5 million dollar donations to a Florida-based organization was given in Amazon stock, which needs to be managed over the next five years in order to maintain its value. This means the ‘gift’ isn’t immediately available and is very likely to lose value, ultimately delivering less value than what Bezos promised had the money been sent in cash.
While a near $100 million dollar donation sounds like a massive amount, to a man like Bezos (who is valued at nearly $111 billion dollars) this amounts to 0.09% of his net worth a little more than what he might find stuffed in the pocket of an old jacket. When you compare that percentage to the average wealth of an American family ($97,000) it amounts to a mere $92 dollar contribution. No other American would make news for donating $100 dollars to charity, so why exactly should the wealthiest man in this country be praised for donating his pocket change while so many Americans struggle to get by?
Let’s be clear here: Bezos’ millions will likely work to make some people’s lives better, but relying on generous wealthy donors to pick and choose complicated societal problems to tackle is a recipe for disaster. Simply throwing money at a problem like homelessness, without systemic, structural change that only democratically-elected governments are positioned to deliver, won’t solve it. It’s a complicated problem that stems from a litany of issues like unaffordable housing, insufficient transportation networks, and the lack of social services that can help people get back on their feet. And spoiler alert: all those issues are directly connected to tax revenue.
Though there may be nothing wrong with philanthropic giving, it’s certainly no replacement for well-funded public services. At the end of the day, when wealthy people are only concerned with padding their bottom line, we can’t rely on the generosity of a few people to improve this nation. Our country would be better off if rich folks like Bezos just simply, paid their taxes.