not-so-secret secret millionaire

I watched The Oscars this past Sunday, and in doing so was treated to several promos for ABC’s newest “reality” show: Secret Millionaire, which will fill the primetime spot of Sundays at 8pm.

The gist of Secret Millionaire: “Some of America’s most successful self-made [aren’t they all?] millionaires … spend a week in the country’s poorest areas and ultimately reward some unsung community heroes with hundreds of thousands of dollars of their own money.” The millionaires will hide their true financial identity by living for a week on welfare wages (until Congress cuts funding for the program, I imagine), ultimately surprising the charitable-recipients-to-be, and reinforcing the notion that the insanely rich can easily pass for regular folks.

(Where have we heard this before? Ah yes, Undercover Boss, which airs on CBS, also on Sunday, also at 8pm. Better get your DVR ready!) 

Now, of course, there is a long, established tradition of insanely wealthy people giving back to their communities, starting philanthropic foundations, and so forth. “Americans pride themselves on their philanthropic tradition, and on the role of private charity, which is much more developed here than it is in Europe, where the expectation is that the government will care for the poor,” Judith Warner wrote in The New York Times.

But the idea, the story, the myth of insanely wealthy people using their funds for philanthropic causes far outweighs the reality of the actual giving (let alone what kind of social equality impact their giving really has, or doesn’t have), as two primetime national network television shows will attest.

Wealthy people, in fact, give less than non-wealthy people do. “For decades,” Warner reported, “surveys have shown that upper-income Americans don’t give away as much of their money as they might and are particularly undistinguished as givers when compared with the poor, who are strikingly generous. A number of … studies have shown that lower-income Americans give proportionally more of their incomes to charity than do upper-income Americans.”

Which is puzzling. Especially since insanely wealthy folks can write-off their giving so effectively for tax breaks. (Or voluntarily star in one of two primetime television specials, which is the kind of exposure you literally can’t buy, but no doubt will pay off handsomely in brand management and market exposure.)

It is also interesting (or maddening) to note that Secret Millionaire debuts on the heels of the recently-released Obama Budget 2011, which promises to cut services to middle- and lower-income folks while reducing taxes for the wealthiest amongst us. “Less than two months after signing tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans into law,” reports The Huffington Post, Obama proposed to cut “funding to programs that assist the working poor, help the needy heat their homes, and expand access to graduate-level education.”

And this at a time when economic inequality has reached levels unseen in decades. In America today “the top one-hundredth of one percent … make an average of $27 million per household,” Mother Jones reports. “The average income for the bottom 90 percent of us? $31,244.” (For a slew of discouraging charts on how our wealth has been redistributed to benefit the insanely wealthy, click here.)

How perfect. The wealth gap is expanding, and executives at CBS and ABC respectively have decided that this is an ideal time for America to be treated to two primetime television specials reminding us about how giving (self-made!) millionaires can be.

Which, of course, is true. Millionaires can be extremely giving. And thankfully, some of them have been, from time to time, throughout the ages.

But that is not the whole story, or even a fair representation of reality. Far from it. And this very real reality promises to remain status quo, regardless of the highly visible philanthropic adventures exhibited on Secret Millionaire. Which is why each episode should begin with an appropriate disclaimer, to remind us all of this factual reality, unfortunate though it may be: WARNING! THE MILLIONAIRES WHOSE GIVING YOU ABOUT TO WITNESS DO NOT REPRESENT THE MAJORITY OF MILLIONAIRES (LET ALONE BILLIONAIRES) WHO INHABIT OUR SOCIETY.

The “average” millionaire gives less. That is the real secret.


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Filed under Accountable Wealth, American Dream, Class, Economic Justice, Economic Opportunity, Philanthropy, Social Change

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