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The responsibility of billionaires in tough times

(BUSINESS FINANCE) How have billionaires continued to grow wealthy in times of economic turmoil? And how can they try to improve others’ situations?

Man counting cash in his hand representing the CEO offering money to employees who quit.

The COVID-19 pandemic has made the divide between economic classes in the US more clear than ever before. From housing to healthcare, one’s ability to survive the impact of these times has been largely dictated by income.

Billionaires, however, sit in a league of their own. Mostly, they have been impacted by becoming much wealthier.

Jeff Bezos is an easy example of wealthier billionaires. He has added $74 billion to his already eye-popping net worth over the 8-month course of the pandemic.

Not just because of the shift away from shopping in-person, either – Watchdog group public Citizen has alleged that Amazon raised its prices as much as 900% on essential goods like face masks, hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and shelf stable food staples, though Amazon has denied this. And while the company regularly speaks out against price gouging, their efforts primarily fixate on third parties.

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But as far as I know, only one person has intentionally lost their billionaire status recently. The “James Bond of Philanthropy,” Charles Feeney, just shuttered The Atlantic Foundation after 40 years of giving. In that time, he has donated away nearly his entire $8 billion fortune to charities around the globe.

Feeney, now 89, cofounded Tourists International with Robert Miller in 1960. The luxury retail chain, later known as Duty Free Shoppers, was fueled by cash from international Asian tourism and military service members.

Unbeknownst to his fellow shareholders, Feeney transferred his company assets in 1982 to start the Atlantic Foundation and for years the Atlantic Foundation’s grants were bestowed totally anonymously. His secret wasn’t discovered until court documents regarding a conflict with Miller, his former business partner, forced him to come forward in 1997.

Feeny is far from broke today, living in a San Francisco apartment (hey, they’re expensive) and holding onto a tidy $2 million.

Still, he has given away the greatest proportion of his wealth out of all American philanthropists. The Atlantic Foundation’s legacy remains a powerful acknowledgement of the responsibility that comes with holding a vast quantity of resources and capital.

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After all, human brains struggle to really ‘get’ the sheer scale of a billion – let alone give it away.

Desmond Meagley is an award-winning writer, graphic artist and cultural commentator in D.C. A proud YR Media alumn, Desmond's writing and illustrations have been featured in the SF Chronicle, HuffPost, Teen Vogue, The Daily Cal, and NPR among others. In their spare time, Desmond enjoys vegetarian cooking and vigorous bike rides.

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