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Editorial: Spirit of giving not lost on the rich

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg during press conference Organizatifor Economic CooperatiDevelopment’s Sustainable Cities Conference Cultural Center 78 W. Washington.Tuesday

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg during a press conference at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Sustainable Cities Conference at the Cultural Center 78 W. Washington.Tuesday, March 6, 2012. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times

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Updated: February 1, 2013 7:52PM

Michael Bloomberg is our kind of billionaire. He’s giving it away.

Last week, the New York mayor donated $350 million to his alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, for a total over four decades of $1.1 billion. Before he dies, he hopes to give away his entire $25 billion fortune.

Forgive us for any hint of ingratitude, then, when we say we wish such generosity were not so important and even necessary. Don’t get us wrong (because we’re all for philanthropy) when we point out that too much of the nation’s wealth is in too few hands to begin with. And we hope you will agree that a revived middle class, reflecting a fairer rewarding of hard work and talent, and not the largess of billionaires is the best bet for our nation’s future.

Happily, more than a few billionaires would seem to agree.

Spend a little time reading letters from American billionaires at the website for The Giving Pledge, Bill Gates’ effort to encourage his fellow billionaires to give away the majority of their wealth before or soon after they die — as an example to us all to give more — and you see how passionate they are to give others the same chances in life.

They are proud of their accomplishments but say they were “blessed.” They admit to good fortune.

“As I approach my 70th birthday, I am more committed than ever to making a difference through philanthropy,” writes Arthur M. Blank, a product of public schools who co-founded The Home Depot. “The needs in our society are more profound than at any point in my lifetime. The gap between rich and poor in America is growing.”

Blank is putting his money to excellent uses, supporting urban parks and early childhood education and fighting childhood obesity.

“I am the son of a plumber who practiced his trade in the South Bronx,” writes Leon G. Cooperman, a billionaire investor educated in public schools. “While I worked hard, I must say I had more than my share of good luck.”

Now, Cooperman adds, he and his wife “feel it is our moral imperative to give others the opportunity to pursue the American Dream by sharing our financial success.”

Concentrated philanthropy at the highest levels can be powerfully effective, but studies suggest that charitable giving works best when it flows from a million hands. A great many more worthy causes and recipients are more fully supported. If true — and common sense would say it is — that is all the more reason we must strive as a nation to strengthen the middle class and narrow the wealth and income gap.

“Foundations, corporations and other forms of institutional philanthropy tend to favor the nation’s most privileged citizens and neglect the neediest people and organizations,” contends Pablo Eisenberg, a senior fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, writing in 2010 in the Chronicle of Philanthropy. “An outsize share of the money from those institutions goes to established colleges, hospitals, and arts and cultural organizations. Only a small amount finds its way to organizations that serve vulnerable children, low-income people, minorities, women, the disabled and other disadvantages constituencies.”

Bill Gates’ campaign dovetails with that view. The larger point of The Giving Pledge, he says on the website, is to inspire Americans of “all financial means” to “give generously to make the world a better place.”

Charitable giving, that is to say, is more a matter of the strength of one’s commitment than the size of one’s bank account.

One year after graduating from Johns Hopkins, Michael Bloomberg wasn’t rich yet. But he made his first donation: $5.

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