A CORNER OF THE FIELD : thoughts on wealth inequality

By Harriet Feinberg, Cambridge, Massachusetts

A very small percentage of the US population now owns a huge proportion of the total wealth. There’s been a great deal of hand-wringing and a great deal of talk about income inequality.  But so far I see only limited exploration of ways that the super-rich and the wealthy might come to see the uses of their wealth differently: *

How might substantial change happen? Given the extreme concentration of wealth at the top, how might many of the wealthy rethink how they want to use their own large personal fortunes so that they would give significant amounts to the presently dispossessed as a sort of rebalancing and re-energizing of our society?
We need to experiment boldly. We need eye-catching end-runs around roadblocks. In envisioning the projects which follow I have sought to separate the moral issue of the responsibility of the rich for the less fortunate from the contentious issues of taxes and the size and scope of government. 

I would prefer that our government collect and sensibly allocate enough money  for a generous and caring safety net for all its citizens and for a robust set of public institutions where all are welcome, and that voters would elect legislators who support a fair tax structure.  But at present we have ‘lean and mean’, grotesque misallocation,  and a lot of posturing.  Until that scenario can be changed, thoughtful citizens can be creative in producing alternatives that stretch the conscience and consciousness of the wealthy and provide significant help to at least segments of those who are suffering.  

Central to my vision is the development of rituals, songs, readings, in-depth facilitated discussions, and visual media intended to bring many of the super-rich and wealthy to changed ways of using their vast resources. All the arts -- drama, music, poetry, painting-- have been used over the centuries to elicit deep feelings and to transform perceptions and actions. In many contexts performances evoke gratitude, thanksgiving, and generosity of spirit The arts have also been used with exceptional power to help move toward reconciliation in difficult situations, especially in peacemaking after violence.** Why not to heal grievous inequalities? The wonderful inventiveness of recent protestors all around the country--the amazing variety of signs, outfits, and slogans-- makes me think we can tap this creativity for many unusual ways of approaching the financially fortunate.

There could be performances and conversations outside and inside offices of Goldman Sachs, Bank of America, General Electric, Exxon, Verizon and other huge corporations, always with wealthy individuals participating in creating and performing. Sidewalk readings and dramatizations at such places could be balanced with personal approaches. Artistic shapings of sayings could be placed or beamed inside buildings where they would attract attention. These creations could include quotations from the Bible,  pronouncements by revered thinkers and leaders from many cultures and eras about the responsibilities of the wealthy, individual and choral singing of selected texts about the need to share the bounty of life,  humorous skits, cartoons. 

Americans with large fortunes are a diverse group who have come into their wealth in a wide variety of ways: some inherited money; some married money;  some had an extrarodinarly good idea at the right time and the business sense and energy to parley it into a fortune; some were well-connected through birth and schooling and got plum jobs with immense bonuses; some made fortunes by smart speculation and investment; and some profited in ‘grey’ trading areas or by methods they knew or suspected were illegal.

Some of the wealthy, for example sports icons and movie stars, are highly visible;  many others are unknown to the public. They range from the extraordinarly generous to the regularly charitable to the remarkably, indeed wackily self-indulgent. They live all over the world; many move around with the seasons. So there’s no one answer to the question: what is in the way of these people wanting to give a significant amount which for them isn’t a sacrifice, not even an inconvenience, in direct aid to help the nation’s dispossessed recover dignity and livelihood at this difficult time? What beliefs and attitudes come up? How might they be transcended through the power of the arts? 

I am about to sketch four envisioned projects. Through these projects the super-rich and the wealthy could put hundreds of thousands of unemployed people back to work . prevent many home foreclosures, and reduce food insecurity  without any need for new legislation or for government funds. I have purposely detached these projects from the angry ideological debates about taxes.  However,  the projects do connect with the tax debates because I am asking potential donors to compute and then to donate the approximate amount they have saved in the last decade because of the Bush tax cuts.

Each choice by a wealthy person is individual,  but the numbers of people re-employed, the number of homes saved from foreclosure, and the amount of food distributed by these four projects could be tracked and charted collectively.

 ‘A Corner of the Field’ is the first of four projects. The title comes from the book of Leviticus:  “And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corner of the field, neither shalt thou gather the gleaning of thy harvest.  And thou shalt not glean thy vineyard, neither shalt thou gather the fallen fruit of thy vineyard; thou shalt leave them for the poor and for the stranger: I am the Lord your God.” (19 :9-10) 

The essence of the plan is this: Very wealthy people determine (with the help of their accountants or a method available on the Internet) about how much money they saved during a decade of Bush tax cuts and then use that money to return groups of people recently laid off to their former places of employment, to reactivate projects stalled by budget cuts, and to hire clusters of young unemployed graduates who have proposed useful projects. 

Administratively, the project works through the creation of many ‘Job Packages’  which would re-employ for two years a stated number of people in an institution, an occupation, or a neighborhood. I chose two years because one year of assured employment isn’t long enough to regain one’s financial bearings and also because if very large numbers of unemployed people were to return to the work force and hence pay taxes and spend money, within two years our economy could rebound sufficiently so that most of those helped by this project would remain on the job.  

Here is an example: Suppose a community college has had to absorb an across-the-board 10% cut and has let go a mix of administrators, faculty, and staff. It’s a little like running a movie backwards: for each employee, the ‘packager’ needs to check that the employer wants him or her back, that there’s work to do in the same or a comparable role, and that the worker is currently unemployed and wishes to return. The dollar figure for each person includes the total yearly cost to the employer (including any employer contributions) times two (for two years). Suppose the total is six million dollars. A gift to the college of that amount by somone who saved six million because of the Bush tax cuts would re-employ all those people. Presto! The donor can see actual results. 

These ‘packages’ could attract based on a wealthy person’s interests and attachments:

*Someone who gives to the Boston Symphony might reinstate laid-off music teachers and music directors at public schools and community centers in the area where he or she grew up.
*Someone focused on the environment could reinstate state and local park employees who have been let go because of budget cuts.
*Someone concerned about health care issues could reinstate nurses and home health aides connected with a particular group of hospitals. 
*Someone focused on sports could reinstate physical education teachers and coaches in urban districts.
*Someone with many international involvements could restore foreign language programs in a whole state. 
*Someone with a deep attachment to his or her native city could focus on re-employment in certain neighborhoods and beloved community institutions
*Someone who cares about literacy and communication could reinstate public library staff in a region; that contribution would help reopen shuttered branches and restore reduced hours.

This approach would give donors a personal stake in the realm of activity as well as actual results getting many people back to work.

On to the other two categories of ‘packages’: stalled projects and projects proposed by unemployed graduates These would need to be set up a little differently so that up to 25% of the donated funds could be used for materials and the rest for salaries and wages.

 *Suppose all was ready to renovate a historic house and turn it into a local museum, but suddenly there was no money. The donor could reactivate the whole enterprise using people who lost out on that work. Many such bogged-down efforts could be given new life.
*Diverse groups of unemployed recent college graduates could propose budgets for endeavors which would give them salaries and benefits for two years. They could propose transformation of vacant lots into farms or playgrounds, start-ups of interrelated small businesses, the creation of local transportation networks where public transit is lacking, and so on.

All the ‘packages’ could be posted on a Web site.

To promote this project, an attention-getting initiative would be for people who know them well to create attractive ‘packages’ for Tim Geithner, Larry Summers, and Ben Bernanke, and also for some very wealthy elected officials and some celebrities. It would be great to have these wealthy, influential people model giving back for their peers; and if they provide rhetoric for not participating, that too could advance the public conversation. 

Here’s another attention-getting strategy: Consider General Electric, which paid no taxes on its billions in profits last year. Identify all the board members, vice-presidents and other administrators of GE who are among the super-rich. Ask each of them to give their decade of tax savings to rehire a ‘package’ of the unemployed and carefully keep track of the results for the group; in other words, see how many people the GE super-rich can collectively rehire as a form of giving back to those who have had so much taken away because one of the richest corporations in the US contributed nothing to support the basic functions of government. It doesn’t matter that they as individuals didn’t make GE’s tax policy or might not agree with it.  They acknowledge that they are part of a huge system that didn’t fulfill a fundamental responsibiitiy to the nation. Picture this headline: ‘GE execs put 150,000 workers back to work’.

Do the same for other huge entities that paid zero or almost-zero taxes. In the case of those companies, let’s not call it philanthropy. Let’s call it restitution; by that I mean recognizing and repairing an injustice that has been done. Restitution is not about individual guilt, since those giving back can be several removes--even several generations--from what happened; it is about fairness.


The second project is ‘Save One’--for short, SO.  The title is based on a  quotation from the Talmud: “He who saves one life saves the whole world.”  Anyone wealthy enough to give $6,000 or multiples thereof can participate. 

The idea is to provide a financial incentive of $5000 for small and medium-sized businesses , nonprofits, and local government agencies to hire people who have been unemployed for over a year, especially people who have used up their unemployment benefits. There is also modest financial assistance of $1000 for the new hire, and coaching for the new hire and the employer to see that the start goes smoothly. I developed this idea because I kept reading that many employers actually try to avoid hiring the unemployed--a terrible tactic which of course makes their situation more hopeless the longer it goes on. 

This project could be tried in any medium-sized city that has reasonably good public transportation, a fairly dense population, and many  small- and medium- sized businesses and organizations within easy reach. If it were successful it could be replicated in many locations.

Here is the procedure: Using appropriate agencies and inquiries in the trial city, create a list of long-term unemployed who agree to participate.(I’d like to try it in Somerville, Massachuetts.)  Each one fills out a simple form for circulation to employers. The form includes age, education level, language(s), prior work experience, recent salary/wages, and an optional 100-word statement. 

These forms, with names omitted for reasons of privacy,  circulate to a list of local employers who are open to perusing them and who can ask to meet with anyone who looks qualified for an available position. If a job offer is made after an interview and background check and is accepted, then volunteer ‘coaches’ (retired teachers/social workers/managers) step in, each with a ‘case load’ of two or three,  to be sure the new employee’s preparation for work and the first week or two of work goes smoothly.

Meanwhile, the donor places the $6000 somewhere, perhaps with the local Rotary,  for safekeeping  and has to agree before the money is used for a specific job placement.  The donor can assure him or herself by appropriate inquiry that the job is a real job at fair pay, and that the prospective employee has really been unemployed for over a year. If the placement doesn’t work out the money is used for a different placement, which the donor also needs to approve. This oversight helps avoid scams and misrepresentations and also gives the donor  knowledge about a real person he or she has enabled to return to the work force.    

Of the donated $6000, $2500 goes to the employer after one month and another $2500 after six months. This spacing helps ensure employer commitment to helping the employee succeed. The employee receives $500 during the initial week--a little extra cash at the start-- and another $500 after six months on the job. The long-term goal, of course, is that the employer who has been paying the employee for six months would then retain him or her as a useful and productive member of the organization.  

Ongoing records for the focus city can show how many long-term unemployed have been returned to the work force and (if data can be found) what proportion they are of the city’s long-term unemployed. 


The third project, ‘Jubilee Homes’ takes its title from Chapter 25 of Leviticus, which has complex instructions for the remission of debts every fiftieth year. This project is especially for US billionaires, of whom according to Wikipedia there currently 412. It’s about  preventing home foreclosures before they happen. For billionaires who accumulated hundreds of millions during the past decade because of the Bush tax cuts, this is a way to save whole neighborhoods which are meaningful to them from further deterioration and to save a number of its inhabitants from devastating loss.Here indeed is a place where using the arts to elicit gratitude and a deep desire to share the bounty of life would be appropriate, as many of the billionaires have multiple gorgeous homes.

In this plan, the donor focuses on a cluster of homes in one area which are headed for foreclosure--the homeowners are several months behind on mortgage payments with no way to catch up, and their monthly payments are too high anyway--and catches them before legal proceedings begin--before the usual 90-day ‘window’ has closed.
The donor takes four steps:
- Pay the missed payments.
- Pay down between ten and forty percent of the principal, depending on the financial situation of the homeowner.
 -Renegotiate the mortgage with this smaller principal so that it’s a payment the homeowner can afford.
-Get ironclad assurance from the bank(s) that the donor’s money will be used to increase lending to small businesses and follow up to be sure it happens. That lending will be a highly positive byproduct of the deal.

This approach wouldn’t even be that expensive per home, averaging perhaps $8-10,000 in catchup payments and less than $70,000 in principal reduction. Homes could be saved for well under $100,000 per home, or about a dozen for a million dollars.


A fourth project, ‘Open Hands’ is about neighborhood-supported food sustainability. The title is from Deuteronomy 15:11 and Isaiah 58:10: “Thou shalt surely open thy hand unto thy poor and needy brother..And if thou draw out thy soul to the hungry, then shall thy light rise.” 

Money from the wealthy is used  to create and tend clusters of small vegetable plots on land that is part of suburban homeowners’ lawns. The homeowners give permission for land use and don’t have to do anything else. 

Picture twenty plots approximately 8 x 10 on small areas of willing  suburbanites’ lawns and within easy  walking/biking distance of one another. Picture many of these clusters of plots in the circle of suburbs/exurbs around a city. 

Initially there’s only a  knowledgeable ‘chief’ for each such cluster of plots and a small number of unemployed people trained to do preparation, planting and maintenance. But the plan can grow and transform into a complex endeavor employing more people and creating community cohesion and sustainability. The plan could be a vibrant addition to already existing ‘urban farming’ efforts. 

The harvested fresh food is donated where it is most needed. 



These suggested projects only partially cover their respective realms. Re-employing recently-laid-off workers and hiring the long-term unemployed are at two edges of the problem; many unemployed are not in either group. Stopping foreclosures just before they happen gives no relief to the already foreclosed. 

Many other ideas besides these four for using the tax savings of the wealthy to provide direct aid to the unemployed, the foreclosed and the malnourished could become real projects. For example, with regard to food insecurity, suppose a few of the super-rich combine resources to add 50 cents per student per day for several years to the school breakfast/lunch program in a poor city  and to insist on more fresh food.....and on and on...Through such projects many of the wealthy would be using their acknowledged disproportionate influence on public policy in a very different way.  

What transformational role can the arts play in bringing about inner and outer change?  Initially I wanted to explore ways that repentance might be elicited and encouraged through the arts--that many of the wealthy might regret their class’s seeming worship of money and commit to rebalancing as a sort of restitution for what ordinary Americans have lost. But a close friend who read an early draft objected that repentance was not the way to go: she proposed gratitude as the response that needed to be elicited and amplified, with bounteous sharing as a consequence. 

 I must admit that am deeply influenced by the collective ‘vidui’ or confessional on Yom Kippur, the solemn Jewish fast day.  The long list of actions for which everyone chants repentance aloud is in the plural ‘we’, as if to say: it’s not just about you, it’s about the way your whole community is acting in the world. Despite several reactions in favor of eliciting generosity, I still think repentance, understood as deep inner turning and transformation (in Hebrew: teshuvah) can also have a significant role with the wealthy.

 It’s not about laying on guilt (except of course for those who have actually committed financial crimes and will hopefully be brought to justice). It’s about a larger view of communty. Just as people who ride bicycles everywhere and put solar panels on their house can feel repentant for what human beings have done to devastate the environment; just as Americans who try to practice caring and intergroup connection can feel repentant for some of our country’s actions overseas;  so people can take onto themselves responsibility for correcting imbalances they did not intend to cause. 

For these imbalances are gnawing at our foundations. What happens in a supposedly democratic society when many in the financial/governing elite abandon concern and responsibility for the rest of the population--their schooling, housing, nutrition, health--in favor of continued accumulation of vast wealth?  How long can that society be considered democratic? 

Have I presented wild ideas? Perhaps. Let’s have more of them. In any perplexing area of human endeavor, out of an abundance of musings and explorations may come a promising response. The accumulation of great wealth by a very few is an international phenomenon. In the last few decades the US has become one of the most economically unequal developed nations. Can the arts help our nation choose another path?    
*The group ‘Responsible Wealth’ (responsiblewealth.org) has done admirable work on fair tax issues and has a link on their Web site where people can compute their taxes with and without the Bush tax cuts. An allied organization, Citizens for Tax Justice (ctj.org) provides regular updates on efforts toward tax fairness. Bill Gates’ recent initiative encouraging very wealthy individuals to commit to giving half their wealth away is another positive development. 

**  Brandeis University’s  ‘Program in Peacebuilding and the Arts’ (www.brandeis.edu/ethics/peacebuildingarts), directed by Dr. Cynthia Cohen,  has a trove of resources in this area. The program has recently released a documentary ‘Acting Together on the World Stage’ and will soon release an anthology.