I Was Born Into The 1 Percent—Here's Why I Gave Away My Trust Fund

I have no regrets. If anything, I feel liberated.
© Lori DeSantis

The following is an excerpt from the new book Born on Third Base by Chuck Collins (Chelsea Green, 2016): 

I am the great-grandson of the Chicago meatpacker Oscar Mayer. I won the lottery at birth.

For the last five decades, I have been traversing the race and class divides in our society. I can attest: The relationship status between US people and our super-wealthy is complicated. At one talk I gave, I asked the audience: “How many of you feel rage toward the wealthiest 1 percent?”

Almost everyone in a room of 350 people raised a hand. There was nervous laughter.

“How many of you have admiration for some of the things wealthy people have done to make our society better?”

About two-thirds of the people in the room raised their hands.

“How many of you wish you were in the wealthiest 1 percent?”

Again almost everyone raised a hand, laughing.

“So you feel enraged, admiring, and wish to be the object of your own anger?” I observed. See, I told you it was complicated.

On the one hand, our society expresses a fawning exultation of the wealthy that conflates great riches with virtue. We are a culture that worships wealth and the celebrity of those with great fortunes. On the other hand, we possess a deep resentment toward America’s most endowed. The rich—according to this worldview—are greedy, selfish destroyers who are fundamentally different from other people, an alien race apart from the rest of humanity.

For the rich-bashers, all acts of apparent generosity by a wealthy person are suspect. Acts of giving that used to be celebrated are now scrutinized, as Mark Zuckerberg discovered when he announced he was giving away 99 percent of his Facebook stock over his lifetime. A munificent gesture by a 1 percenter can only be explained as a venal attempt at calculated public relations, pride, or an extension of ego.

Born on Third Base

I grew up in a wealthy and advantaged family with all the benefits that proffers: country club tennis lessons, international travel, elite private schools, access to quality health care and healthy environments, a debt-free college education, a trust fund. I was clueless as to how advantaged I was.

Every couple of years I squeeze into my leather lederhosen shorts and eat bratwurst with my extended Oscar Mayer clan at our family reunion’s German Night.

I love these people.

With few exceptions, my extended family are the people you want on your team to solve any major civic or personal problem. They are generous, compassionate, and civically engaged. And, four generations after the founding of a successful family enterprise, many are comfortably in the top 1 percent of household wealth.

I’m not letting my family affections confuse my understanding of current realities. I’m painfully attuned to the grotesque inequalities of wealth, power, privilege, and opportunity that bombard my sensibilities. I’m simply reporting the facts as I see them. The 1 percent is by no means monolithic and may not be the root cause of our problems, as some suppose—as I explore in my book. But for now, back to life as I’ve known it.

Raised in the leafy suburbs of Detroit, Michigan, I attended Cranbrook School, a boys’ prep school modeled after Cranbrook School in Kent, England. Cranbrook had odd British aristocratic pretentions in its formalities and language, especially sitting in the midwestern United States. We had “masters,” “prefects,” and “forms” instead of teachers, advisors, and grade levels.

One of my classmates, who was an upperclassman in multiple meanings, was Mitt Romney. Our Cranbrook School motto was “Aim High.” To this day, the motto is depicted by an archer shooting an arrow straight up into the air, which, if you think about it, is a really reckless thing to do. Nevertheless, Mitt and I have heeded our school motto, though obviously Mitt has aimed considerably higher!

When I was 16, my father told me I would inherit enough wealth to pay for college and beyond. The sum was significant enough that I wouldn’t have to work, but my father encouraged me to pursue a career as if the money wasn’t there. He himself had worked his whole life.

I was the only member of my graduating senior class at Cranbrook School not to go straight to college. I was hungry to experience the wider world. At age 17, I was beginning to understand the contours of the privilege bubble I had grown up in, and I wanted to venture out.

Undercover Trust Fund Kid

At age 17, I moved from Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, to Worcester, Massachusetts, a working-class city that was down on its luck during the economic recession of the late 1970s.

In Worcester (or “woo-stahhh” as it is called by locals) I worked for two years at a collection of jobs, including as a teacher in a day care center, a tenant organizer in Worcester public housing, and a volunteer at a Catholic Worker soup kitchen. I made friends with people from dramatically different circumstances—from homeless Vietnam vets, radical Catholic nuns, and working-class teachers to neighborhood business owners and black and Latino youth my age who lived in public housing.

But I was completely “undercover” in terms of my privileged class upbringing. Some of my friends probably figured it out. But I certainly didn’t volunteer my full story. I was listening and soaking up a radically different education about the world from my Bloomfield Hills and Cranbrook School childhood.

Between the ages of 20 and 25, I attended college, studied history and economics, and traveled to Mexico and Central America for international service projects, including working with an earthquake relief effort and in a refugee camp. I thought a lot about class and racial identity and what to do with my life.

During these years, I also watched the value of the wealth in my name literally double, even though I was making withdrawals to pay my college tuition. I had a front-row seat to wealth creating more wealth. Meanwhile, I was surrounded by people who worked long hours and were unable to save.

A trusted older friend of mine helped me put my wealth in perspective. “How long would you have to work,” she asked, “before you could save $250,000, a portion of what you have, above and beyond your expenses?” This put this wealth into dramatic relief for me. At the rate I was going, about a hundred years.

The good news is I wasn’t alone in winning the lottery at birth. I found a community of people who were trying to navigate the tension between having substantial inherited wealth and facing the poverty and inequity around us. When I was 18, I met George Pillsbury, the heir to the flour fortune. He had already been depicted in news accounts as the “dough boy.” George had plowed some ground for people like me by cofounding the Haymarket People’s Fund to support “change, not charity” organizations.

“Guilt gets a bum rap,” George explained to me when we I first met him in Boston. “There are two kinds of guilt. One thing we label as guilt is a normal and healthy emotional reaction to feeling the disparities of wealth, suffering, and opportunity. If you don’t feel something about that, then you’re not human.”

The other emotion that we call guilt, George explained, is self-hating and paralyzing. “It keeps you from taking action.” George counseled me to avoid paralyzing guilt and embrace empathetic guilt as a motivation to change the system.

It is hard to explain to my friends who’ve grown up in poverty how disorienting it is to be given something that others aspire their whole lifetimes to have. And to reject it must look as odd as a baseball player running the wrong way around the base path, from third base to first base.

I met other wealthy people, some racked by paralyzing guilt, immobilized by their wealth, and struggling to make their way in the world. I came to appreciate, as Andrew Carnegie wrote, that sometimes giving a child an inheritance is a curse. While feeling grateful to my parents for the head start they provided to me, I saw how inherited wealth interfered with finding my own way in work and life.

We Gave Away a Fortune

At the age of 26, I made the first real adult decision of my life. I gave away the half-a-million-dollar trust fund that my parents had set up for me. If I’d held on to the wealth and kept it invested, I’d have over $7 million today, according to a journalist who later interviewed me.

I also got help from three friends who met regularly to discuss what to do with our wealth. We interviewed over twenty-five people who had given away substantial assets, resulting in a book, We Gave Away a Fortune: Stories of People Who Have Devoted Themselves and Their Wealth to Peace, Justice and the Environment. One member of the group, Edorah Frazer, shared my conviction to give away all our assets. We decided to take the leap on the same day.

On the day I went to the National Bank of Detroit and signed the paperwork to transfer my assets, Edorah did the same thing in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. We called each other from pay phones to share the news.

I felt buoyant and unshackled. Instead of being cramped up by the ambivalence of holding money I didn’t earn, I shared it effectively to boost economic fairness.

I would make my own way. At the time, I could not fully comprehend how the financial wealth was just one part of the substantial inheritance of advantages that flowed to me. I gave away the money, but a lot of my privilege was hardwired.

Thirty years later, I have no regrets. If anything, I feel liberated. My decision enabled me to live my life more aligned to my values. It opened up a source of energy.

I’m not advocating this path for others, nor judging those who choose to hold on to wealth. I was 26 years old, unmarried with no children or responsibilities. I know we live in a deeply insecure society, where people experience accidents or job losses—and there is little safety net in the United States compared with other countries. But for me, it was the right path.

Being stuck in a role where wealth automatically flowed to me, thanks to the rigged rules of the current system, undermined my personal and spiritual sense of well-being. Witnessing poverty and injustice, both in the United States and globally, deepened my understanding of these structures.

Passing the wealth along has allowed me to look unflinchingly and nondefensively at the workings of the “inequality system” and the suffering it causes. I don’t hate the 1 percent. But I deeply hate the ways extreme inequality wounds people’s lives, fuels racial divisions, rips our communities apart, and destroys our ecological home.

To change this situation, we need a movement, led by those hurt and excluded by the system. But we also need the beneficiaries of the rigged game, those of us in the top 1 percent, to play our part.

Chuck Collins is a senior scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies and coeditor of Inequality.org. His forthcoming book is Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good (Chelsea Green, Fall 2016).

See also:
What We Can Learn From Alaska About Sharing Our Common Wealth
Goodbye McMansion, Hello Simple Life: What I Learned From Thoreau