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The Irony of Poverty: We Can’t Afford It

By Kathy Higgins | March 19, 2015 | Corporate Citizenship

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A couple of weeks ago, Forbes magazine released its annual list of the richest people in the world. And for the 16th time in the last 21 years, Bill Gates topped the list with $79.2 billion in his bank account. I assume you get free checking with a balance that large.

But even if Mr. Gates is paying for checking, I don’t think we have to worry about his financial well-being. He could play the slot machines in Vegas and lose a billion dollars a day for two months and he’d still be on Forbes’ list of the world’s Top 50 billionaires. He’d still have enough. And that makes me wonder: How much is enough?

Need in North Carolina

Here in North Carolina, more than 1.7 million of our neighbors are poor – half-a-million of those are children. One in four children in North Carolina lives in poverty, with the figure doubling for minority children. Ten percent of the poor people in North Carolina are in extreme poverty – the poorest of the poor. Like anybody else, they don’t need a billion dollars – but they do need enough.

Since we can’t live with nothing at all and we don’t really need a billion dollars, logic dictates that somewhere between nothing and a billion dollars is enough. Bill Gates certainly feels like he has enough – and then some. In 2014, Bill and his wife Melinda donated $9.8 billion to charity – or about $800 million a month. It’s safe to say that the Gates household is doing plenty to make sure others have enough.

What about the rest of us? To our credit, we Americans are incredibly generous people. In 2013, Americans gave more than $335 billion to charitable causes – that’s more than the entire national income of Sweden. Yet there are still people in our country who don’t have enough. And we don’t have to look far to find them.

What We All Can Do

I’m fortunate to be in a line of work where I can see the impact of charity every day. As president of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina Foundation and the leader of the company’s community relations team, I see the tangible results of charitable giving of all sorts and sizes: I see the ecstatic smiles of children when our company’s volunteers help build KaBOOM! playgrounds; I see parents expressing their thanks with dignity when their children get a warm meal from the East Durham Children’s Initiative; I see determination and commitment from nonprofit leaders who receive funding grants to continue their good work in our communities.

Few of us have $800 million a month to give to charity. Bill and Linda Gates average more charitable giving in a single day than we could earn in several lifetimes. But although most of us will never know what it feels like to write a check for a few million dollars, we still have enough. And that means we can probably spare something for others who don’t have enough.

Bill Gates is a great humanitarian, but he’s not the measure of meaningful giving. The generosity of billionaires shouldn’t deter us from giving – it should inspire us to give. The great thing about money is that 50 of my dollars will buy the same amount of groceries for a hungry family as 50 of Bill Gates’ dollars. Donations in any amount have an impact.

Just ask Chris Rosati, a Durham man living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Chris recently went to a local diner and gave two young girls $50 each and asked them to use the money for an act of kindness. The girls – aged 10 and 13 – decided to send the money to a village in West Africa so the residents could hold a celebration after overcoming the Ebola virus. Chris had forgotten all about his encounter with the girls until he received an e-mail with a photo of the village’s residents holding up signs reading: “Thanks a lot for spreading kindness.”

For the equivalent of what a relatively cheap concert ticket would cost these days, Chris and the thoughtful girls were able to provide an entire village with a night of community bonding they’ll remember forever – and provide all of us with a reminder that tremendous generosity doesn’t require tremendous amounts of money.

Poverty is Everywhere, Even Where You Least Expect

The problem of poverty is too urgent to wait for billionaires to come to the rescue. Even in the billionaire incubator of Silicon Valley, there are children struggling to survive, let alone thrive. A recent CNN report reveals that childhood poverty costs the U.S. more than $500 billion a year, while investing in anti-poverty programs costs just a fraction of that. It sounds crazy, but poverty is expensive for our country and we can’t afford it – in financial or human terms.

There are a number of nonprofits doing great work to make sure North Carolinians have what they need. Here’s a sampling of North Carolina causes that welcome your support. I’m sure you know of many others:

It’s safe to say most of us will never be included on Forbes’ list of billionaires. But as long as we have enough, let’s work to make sure others have enough.