1% for the 99%: Young NYC Philanthropists Demand Rich Pay Fair Share of Taxes

Alina Mogilyanskaya Apr 18, 2012

Armed with pies and pie charts on Sunday afternoon in Prospect Park, a group of self-identified 1%ers  set out to educate neighborhood residents about the role of the tax system in increasing wealth inequality in the United States. Purposefully staged ahead of this year’s Tax Day and an attempt by the U.S. Senate to vote on the Buffett Rule, the action aimed to raise awareness among affluent young people in the Park Slope and Prospect Heights neighborhoods of how the current tax structure favors and protects people with wealth.

A joint project of a pair of non-profits – Resource Generation and Wealth for the Common Good – the group campaigns for reforms of the current tax system to include higher taxes on the rich and an equal taxation on wealth and work. Under present law, the top tax rate is 35% but the tax rate on income earned from investments is only 15%.

“We want to be taxed, and we want our families to be taxed,” said Sophie Hagen, one of the participants. “We believe that the security of our families does not depend on how much wealth we have, and we want to re-imagine what safety, security, and community means.”

Concretely, this means leveraging their financial resources and positions of privilege to support social justice movements and affect institutional change, and Resource Generation supports them in doing so.

“Wealthy people actually have a key role to play in organizing for social change,” said Jessie Spector, program director at Resource Generation. “To have wealthy people saying that they don’t want wealth disparity either is such an important thing, especially because their voices have a lot of power in that space.”

Many Resource Generation members now publicly self-identify as the 1% standing in solidarity with the 99%, although it wasn’t always that way. Resource Generation was founded in 1995 and for most of its history worked discreetly – focusing its work either internally, on the education of its members in social change philanthropy, or on collaboration with like-minded grassroots organizations.

The Occupy movement has provided both an opportunity for Resource Generation to create a public face and a language with which to speak out. “I think many activists who are 1%ers feel that talking about the wealth that they come from is actually going to act counter to their activism,” said Hagen.

“We’re showing that that’s actually not true, that it is important to be honest and open about the privilege that we come from, because then we can really move the dialogue forward.”

For these 1%ers, or in some cases, actually 5%ers or 20%ers, coming to be involved with Resource Generation was a process of coming to terms with their class identity. “All of these feelings come up, about what is my worth and what is my role,” Spector explained. “Resource Generation really provides a community where I can work through some of that, and also not be quiet about my money but actually give it to organizations that I care about and say, ‘Yes, I’m a donor and I’m an activist and I care about these issues.’”

In describing the issue of tax justice, the Tax Team used pies – in lemon, chocolate, and deliciously melting “messy chocolate” varieties – to illustrate the current distribution of U.S. wealth and stock market wealth. The numbers: the top 1% owns 35% of wealth and 38%  of stock market wealth, while the top 19% owns 52 and 53%, respectively.

At the end of the demonstration, the pies were cut up evenly and shared out between presenters and onlookers.

“It’s interesting, there’s definitely a growing inequality involved, but it’s hard to gauge how you feel about that,” said Charles Roberts, a neighborhood resident who sampled some pie. “The idea is to aspire to be on that other half or that 1%, so it’s hard to balance the idea of equality and the incentive to work really hard in order to make, hopefully, millions of dollars.”

In conjunction with the New York City event, local chapters of Resource Generation held similar pie actions April 15 and April 17 in cities around the country, including Washington, D.C., Boston, Philadelphia, Seattle, Denver, Los Angeles, Chicago, Durham, and Portland, Maine.

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