Philanthropy Starts to Do More to Combat Declining Economic Opportunity in America

posted on: December 10, 2012

by Sean Dobson

A study released this summer by the Pew Center, The Lost Decade of the Middle Class: Fewer, Poorer, Gloomier, uncovers yet more evidence that the American Dream of upward social mobility is in severe trouble.

The report finds that from 2000-2010 middle-tier median family income and wealth dropped and that a big majority of middle-class Americans say it is harder now than ten years ago to maintain their standard of living. Since 2010, the situation has not improved as yet another jobless economic “recovery” helps corporate profits but not median family income.

In that it hurts so many millions of Americans in such an obvious way, the growing class character of our society must surely rank with global warming as one of the two biggest problems facing the U.S.

I am pleased to report that U.S. philanthropy seems to have noticed. New research by NCRP shows that the annual share of foundation dollars intended to benefit underserved communities increased from 33 percent during the 2004-2006 period up to 40 percent during the 2008-2010 period. Among the subgroups comprising “underserved communities,” the “economically disadvantaged” received the single biggest increase.

Also encouraging is another recent NCRP research finding: during those same years the share of grant dollars devoted to social justice advocacy and empowerment strategies (as opposed to charitable service provision) also increased, though more modestly, from 12 percent up to 15 percent, indicating that U.S. philanthropy is beginning to realize that big systemic challenges like income inequality require systems-change strategies (not charitable band aids).

U.S. philanthropy still has a long way to go before we as a sector can claim a place of honor in the battle against income inequality, but these new numbers show we are making progress.

Sean Dobson is field director at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP).