Seattle is a mercurial place, a city often defined by one thing and its opposite at the same time. Is our city progressive or provincial? Is our weather oppressive or ideal? Is our population diverse or homogeneous? Is our football team brilliant or overrated? Often the answer is … well, both.
And economic inequality — also on Seattle’s list of ambivalent characteristics — just got another spotlight.
Anti-poverty powerhouse Oxfam International published its yearly report on growing global inequality this week, and the results are stunning: Just eight men own the same amount of wealth as the poorest half of humanity.
And two of them — Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos — live right here in the Seattle area.
“We want to be this center of humanitarianism,” says Tom Paulson, founder of Humanosphere, a Seattle-based publication covering global aid and development. “And at the same time we’re the home of two of the eight poster boys for wealth inequality.”
But at least one of those “poster boys” is as well-known for giving money away as for amassing it. Bill Gates is also a founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest private foundation in the world.
It’s a point critics of the Oxfam report are quick to make, adding that the mega-wealthy often donate generously to charities, while also growing industries and fueling economies.
“In addition to the hundreds of thousands of jobs that their businesses have created, most of these names are major philanthropists by anyone’s definition — in the billions of dollars — supporting a range of community needs,” said Nicole Neroulias Gupte of Philanthropy Northwest, referencing the list.
“Five of the eight have also signed The Giving Pledge, a commitment to give away most of their money,” she continued by email. Philanthropy Northwest is a Seattle-based network of foundations and corporate-giving programs, including Microsoft, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Bezos Family Foundation (run by Bezos’ parents).
“The trend is that the very tip top of the economic pyramid is pulling away from the rest of society, the rest of humanity, really.”
But Oxfam says philanthropy alone can’t save us from a rapidly widening gap between the world’s richest and poorest people — a gap they say is a result of economic growth that favors only the rich, instead of lifting all boats.
“The trend is that the very tip top of the economic pyramid is pulling away from the rest of society, the rest of humanity, really,” says Gawain Kripke, director of policy and research at Oxfam America. “And, meanwhile, the rest of humanity is just standing still or barely improving their income over time.”
Kripke says factors like globalization and the recent growth of the financial sector have created opportunities to amass immense wealth. He believes “systemic solutions” are needed to make sure some of that trickles down. He mentions tax reform and government guarantees of basic services, such as health care and education, as well as labor protections and a commitment to tackling discrimination.
And these aren’t just issues for poor countries to worry about, Kripke says. He believes the instability that comes with wealth inequality is reflected in populist movements like President-elect Donald Trump’s candidacy and the isolationism seen in Britain’s recent “Brexit” vote.
“I think Seattle is weirdly home to a lot of these issues,” says Paulson. “We’re putting a lot of effort into finding the solution, but we don’t talk about structural problems, like taxes.”
One of the things I’ve always loved about Seattle is its complexity. I like that we’re hard to pin down, difficult to explain, always changing.
More than that, I love this city’s compassion: Seattle is a place deeply concerned with what is right. You can see it in our fights for gay marriage, a fair minimum wage and, yes, even in the generosity of (some) of our wealthiest citizens.
But are we really applying that compassion, our famous innovative spirit and our superlative concentration of the world’s wealth toward addressing the root causes behind this shocking gap between rich and poor?
We should be. Because if there’s one thing I’d like Seattle to be unequivocally known for, it’s a commitment to equality.