A Way to Address Inequality That's as American as Apple Pie

Over 80 percent of the roughly $300 billion annually given to charity in this country comes from individuals. And most of this money is donated not by the celebrity philanthropists we often hear about but by ordinary people.
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With mounting evidence of the widening income gap in the U.S., it's easy to believe little can be done about it. Even if there weren't so much political gridlock in Washington, many people think either that government shouldn't or that it simply cannot close this gap.

Still, there's a way to mitigate inequality that's as American as apple pie -- through our own generosity. Over 80 percent of the roughly $300 billion annually given to charity in this country comes from individuals. And most of this money is donated not by the celebrity philanthropists we often hear about but by ordinary people. If you want to help individuals struggling to get ahead yet lack the time to learn about charities worth supporting, you share lots of company. The challenge is identifying those organizations.

My research has done just that. It highlights example after example of nonprofits with track records of wisely using their donations to enable people in tough circumstances to move their lives forward. This research testifies to how giving can provide a critical source of help. Of course, there are no magic-bullet solutions to inequality. Still, many charities from coast to coast offer second chances to Americans who otherwise would have dim prospects for attaining success.

Consider 33-year-old Joel, whose life changed dramatically when he received a phone call eight years ago. He'd dropped out of college at 20 to help his parents, who were lapsing on their house payments after falling prey to a predatory lending scam. The call was from a mentor who had greatly impacted Joel after he left school in 11th grade. She worked for YouthBuild, which runs 273 programs nationwide that enable high-school dropouts to earn their GED and gain valuable skills in the construction trades. She was calling because it had been quite some time since they'd spoken. She became concerned after hearing Joel wasn't doing well. She soon called again, this time to say YouthBuild had an open paid staff position and she thought he'd be a great fit.

Since Joel started working as a mentor to kids facing similar circumstances to what he had experienced growing up, his life has steadily moved forward. He and his wife saved up enough money to purchase a home two years ago and he's back in school part time, continuing the pursuit of his bachelor's degree that he cut short in his mid-20s. Recently, he was promoted to Director of Leadership Development at YouthBuild.

Lots of other worthy charities are also doing significant work to restore the American dream. Like YouthBuild, many mentor at-risk youngsters and teach them marketable job skills. Others offer kids an enriched early childhood education, make college more accessible, or move the chronically homeless into permanent housing.

Reputable and widely respected philanthropic organizations like Venture Philanthropy Partners and Roberts Enterprise Development Fund have vetted these charities. Therefore, you can trust that they make effective use of their donations and powerfully impact people's lives. The exciting news in the wake of rising inequality and political gridlock is that private individuals have the power to help people in need achieve successes that would be unimaginable were it not for the unsung work of so many worthy charities across the U.S.

And this power is likely to increase significantly over the coming decades. Baby Boomers are expected to bequeath more wealth to their heirs than any prior generations of Americans ever has. The Boston College Center on Wealth and Philanthropy estimates the amount to be as high as $41 trillion by 2055. This indicates that we will have an unprecedented opportunity to channel our generosity in ways that can affirm and renew our country's longstanding promise of offering all people the chance to achieve a better life.

Ira Silver is a professor of sociology at Framingham State University. He is the author of Giving Hope: How You Can Restore the American Dream and blogs at Opportunity For All.

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