Businessman T.J. Zlotnitsky offers another apt example of this demographic. After making a fortune with his tech company, he wants companies to pay higher wages and the government to tax the rich more. Zlotnitsky belongs to Patriotic Millionaires, a group of rich people bent on fighting inequality. As he explained in a blog post:
“My story wouldn’t be possible without the uniquely American combination of opportunity and public services that my family was able to tap into.”
To learn more about people like him, we conducted interviews with 20 people who live across the country and belong to a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a more fair economy. (We agreed not to name it.) All of the people we spoke with consider themselves to be “wealthy allies” who work alongside people of much more modest means to reduce economic inequality. These rich people epitomized wealth in America: most were white men. They spanned all ages. Some had inherited their fortune, while others were raised in households with modest means and made their wealth over the course of their careers.
Like Zlotnitsky, most wealthy people fighting inequality who we spoke with told us they had gone through a reflective process to recognize the advantages their status has afforded them while getting involved in this effort.
First, they accepted that they partly owed their wealth to a system that works in their favor and not merely to their own merits and efforts. Realizing that they owe their wealth partially to systematic advantages and luck was challenging because it requires overcoming the popular belief that people get what they deserve. Chuck Collins, who inherited and gave away his share of the Oscar Mayer fortune, told a tale of self-awareness in a memoir he called “Born on Third Base.” Collins now advocates for preserving the estate tax and does research on inequality to bring more attention to the issue.
The next step is overcoming shame. Acknowledging their privilege made many of the people we interviewed feel ashamed. For example, a bisexual woman who inherited nearly $1 million on her 21st birthday said she found it harder to come out to her friends as wealthy than as a lesbian. Hearing over and over that identifying as rich was disconcerting surprised us because many Americans claim their wealth as evidence of merit.
In addition to overcoming their guilt and shame, wealthy allies often fear the ire of other rich people. Their peers got mad at them for doing things that arguably violate their own economic interests, such as advocating for taxes targeting the rich.
The people we interviewed all said they consider these challenges hard but necessary parts of the process of becoming a wealthy ally. Many said they relied on people like themselves for moral support.