CINCINNATI -- Here’s a novel idea to eliminate poverty: Get rich people to help.
That’s the pitch from Chuck Collins, a self-proclaimed member of the 1 percent who has been visiting Cincinnati this week. He spoke to about 200 people Tuesday morning in a packed room at the Cincinnati-Hamilton County Community Action Agency to deliver a lecture entitled “Transforming a System that Creates Poverty.”
Sponsors of the presentation included Taft Lecture Series, Christ Church Cathedral, Community Action Agency Foundation and Greater Cincinnati Foundation.
Now, as a reporter whose work focuses a lot on poverty in the region, I have attended a lot of lectures by a lot of authors and experts. But I have to admit, this was a new one for me.
“I grew up in the 1 percent,” Collins explained at the outset. “My great grandfather was the meat packer Oscar Mayer.”
(And if you can’t get that "I Wish I were an Oscar Mayer wiener" jingle out of your head now, sorry about that. I can’t either.)
Collins grew up around lots of rich people. But in his 20s, he came to Cincinnati and worked in the West End with the late Rev. Maurice McCrackin.
“I grew up with a front-row seat to these extraordinary inequalities as they began to open up in the 1980s and 1990s,” he said.
He saw how stagnating wages were affecting people. Yet he also had a front-row seat to creating wealth and building upon his own privilege.
“The wealth I was given at the age of 21 doubled in a five-year period,” he said.
So you might be wondering at this point, what does a rich guy know about eliminating poverty? Believe me, that question crossed my mind, too.
‘We need to come together’
But Collins made a compelling case that the most effective way to change the systems that have contributed to our nation’s staggering inequality is to get buy-in from the people who benefit most from those systems.
He shared these statistics:
Almost 85 percent of income gains and wealth growth have gone to the top one-tenth of 1 percent of Americans. “And the higher you go up the economic ladder, the more concentrated the wealth becomes,” he said.
The wealthiest 400 people in the U.S. have as much wealth combined as the bottom 64 percent of U.S. households combined.
The richest three people in the U.S. have as much combined wealth as the bottom 50 percent of all residents.
“I would submit that one of the biggest effects of this is that there’s a new physics to poverty and inequality, compounding advantage at the top and accelerating disadvantage for everyone else,” he said. “We can’t ignore these forces at the top of the economy -- these concentrations of wealth and power which are distorting the whole picture for all of us.”
But what can we do?
“We need to come together,” Collins said.
In his book “Born on Third Base,” Collins talked with his “wealthy brothers and sisters” and delivered what he called a very simple message: “Come home.”
“Come back and root yourself in a place. Put your stake in a community, not an enclave, not a gated community, but a wide community,” he said. “And work to make sure that everyone’s children have the same opportunity as your own children.”
He argues that doing so should be viewed as an act of charity or altruism.
“It is essential to all of our survival,” he said. “Bring the wealth home. Bring it out of the shadows of these offshore tax shelters. Bring that money out of the Wall Street casino and put it back into the community of goods and services that are actually creating real things for real people.”
Rich people also need to “share the wealth,” he said, adding, “not just through philanthropy but by paying taxes.”
The suggestion drew applause from the diverse group assembled for Collins’ talk on Tuesday.
But he wasn’t finished there.
‘They are waiting to be invited home’
Collins said all of us also must “change the stories that justify these inequalities.”
You know the ones. They’re the stories that say if people just worked hard, they would do better. And that the very richest people have earned what they have and shouldn’t have to share it.
The pervasive story, he said, is “you are where you are because that’s where you deserve to be.”
But what did Collins do to deserve to be born into a family of wealth? And what do other kids do to deserve to be born into a family that scrambles for food or shelter?
“Let’s not pretend we just showed up yesterday and we’re reshuffling the deck and dealing the cards out new, and you’re going to be able to win,” he said.
At which point a lady in the audience shouted: “That’s right!”
Collins said we have to be willing to share our stories and be honest about how we got to where we are. He said white men, especially, don’t like to admit to getting help.
“Everyone wants to tell the ‘I did it alone’ story,” he said.
But that’s not reality.
“The reality is we all need each other. We are one web. We are nothing without each other,” he said.
“There is no wealth without the commonwealth.”
Collins said he knows there are wealthy people who won’t buy into this idea, possibly because they are so attached to the idea that they deserve what they have.
“But I can also tell you there are many more people who are waiting to be called to something bigger,” he said. “They are waiting to be invited home.”
It’s a heck of an idea, one that can be difficult to imagine in today’s world where there is so much division and anger.
Still, it’s hard not to like the idea of a society where we don’t write people off or leave them behind and where all kids have the opportunity to learn and thrive and reach their potential.
The Rev. Damon Lynch III, the pastor of New Prospect Baptist Church who moderated a panel discussion after Collins’ talk, noted that Cincinnati recently earned the distinction of “fastest-growing economy in the Midwest.”
“Now I wonder, can I drink to that in Lower Price Hill?” he said. “Can I drink to that in Winton Terrace?”
Think how much stronger our local economy could be if the answer to his questions was yes.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Childhood poverty is an important focus for her and for WCPO. To read more stories about childhood poverty, go to www.wcpo.com/poverty.
To read more stories by Lucy, go to www.wcpo.com/may. To reach her, email email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.