Michael, Meet Curtis: Philanthropy Gets Personal

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This past weekend I had the opportunity to bring two ends of the American income spectrum together. I introduced Michael, the blue-blood New Yorker who plans to start a family foundation (see earlier posts), to Curtis, a squatter in Chicago who moves from one abandoned apartment to another.

Michael, a multi-millionaire with a team of professionals managing his assets, must donate $78 million over the next few years. Curtis lives off $5,000 per year; he rarely has more than a few dollars in his pocket. Michael is white, Curtis is African-American.

For 48 hours, Michael observed Curtis and, just as important, Curtis tried to help Michael understand “low income living.”

First, some context:

Michael came to me frustrated. He had just paid three consultants nearly $20,000 for advice on philanthropy. Specifically, he wanted to learn as he gave his money away: could they engineer a program of professional development? The consultants’ overall wealth management strategies utilized predictable business models, while their estate planning suggestions were cautious and conservative.

And, to my surprise and Michael’s, their responses about personal growth were largely uninspiring. A strange mix of entrepreneurial zeal and self-help filled three equally impressive, glossy documents. Phrases like “giving to yourself can be the greatest gift,” “charity is a windmill turning intent into action,” and “embrace the inner you” (neither Michael nor I could figure that one out) saturated the pages — but little else about how to mature as a donor. The common thread was that learning “happens.”

Instead, Michael decided to spend a year with me understanding poverty in urban America — I’m not sure that’s a much better choice(!) — but he liked the experiences of other donors with whom I’ve worked. As in the past, I will not accept any money from Michael — only the freedom to write about our time together.

Our journey begins with Michael and Curtis sharing a weekend together in Chicago. Each year I spend several continuous days with squatters to understand how they live on the streets. In Chicago public housing, squatters survive because some housing authority managers to pay them under-the-table to clean and fix the place — instead of unionized janitors. I learn a lot about the community by sleeping, eating, and otherwise hanging out with Curtis and his friends. This time, Michael joined me.

At noon on Saturday I asked Michael and Curtis: “With only $20, how will you survive for the weekend — from now, until Monday morning?” (Curtis and I agreed to exempt rent. It was hard enough using $20 to meet food and personal needs — Michael would never figure out how to squat.) Michael wouldn’t sleep at Curtis’s place — he stayed at the Four Seasons, but to his credit, he hung out in Curtis’s neighborhood.

By 5 p.m. Curtis had made his first two purchases: frozen chicken wings and a can of beans ($4.75); a T-shirt and pair of socks from a vendor on the street ($2.00).

Meanwhile, Michael drove his rental car around the neighborhood. When he returned to meet us he was exasperated. “The food here is awful! No fruit, vegetables are moldy. Only meat, canned food, and soda. What do kids eat? The guy at the store told me no one would eat fruit unless it’s in a can. Is that true?”

Curtis shook his head. I told Michael, “When we get back to New York, I will talk with you about diet and quality of food availability in poor neighborhoods.”

But Michael was growing upset. “All I see are liquor stores and dollar stores and fast food. There was one guy who said he’d buy my food stamps — 50 cents for a dollar in stamps? How can people live like this?”

Curtis laughed. He asked Michael if he’d like some chicken and beans. Michael said, “No thank you,” and sat on the cold linoleum floor. He was silent.

“How much does a banana cost,” Curtis asked Michael. Michael looked embarrassed, unable to answer.

“You don’t know, do you!” Curtis laughed. “See fruit is expensive; raw food is too much for low income people. And we don’t always have a fridge, so you got to keep things in cans. That way it can move with you. And one thing you need to know: low income people always are on the move — not just squatters, all low income folks.”

Michael started to write on paper and looked at me, as if to ask for permission. Curtis told him he could take notes freely.

When we met at the end of the evening, Michael bought two double cheeseburgers and a soda at McDonald’s ($3.50). Curtis had purchased “a ten pack of Sanka” (instant coffee) ($2.00), a lock ($2.00), and four loose menthol cigarettes ($1.00).

The subject of the conversation turned to personal needs. Curtis made Michael some coffee and patted him on the back. “Don’t be shy, ask me whatever you want.”

Michael sipped the coffee and checked his notes under the dim kitchen light. “I saw a mother and child on the way over here. They were walking into buildings with no windows, no doors. Are they going to sleep there? Where do they bathe? What would it cost to build facilities for children? Are there soup kitchens around here?”

Curtis showed Michael a rag and cleaning brush. “See this, Michael? Keep this around, and you’ll always have a meal or a place to sleep — or both.” Michael looked confused. Curtis explained further. “People who got places to sleep will let you stay a night. But you have to pay $10. And I don’t have money, so I clean up, fix things. That woman you saw — she probably will clean for a good night’s sleep. Maybe a store needs mopping, maybe your uncle needs his garage cleaned.”

“Why not stay at a shelter?” Michael asked.

“Not enough of them around,” Curtis replied. “And you have to be out by 6 a.m. If you got kids, you can’t take them out in the cold. So you stay in a store, or you stay in a vacant building. And no more food kitchens since the projects went down. Not a lot for poor people.”

Curtis then took out a cigarette. “See this? Always have a loose cigarette. You can always use a bathroom in somebody’s house — maybe even get a shower — for one. Maybe your kid took a dump in his pants. Maybe you need some toilet tissue. Always keep a cigarette for emergencies.”

Curtis cooked another plate of chicken and beans. He was about to eat it, but once again he offered it to Michael. This time Michael accepted. Michael looked overwhelmed; his face was perspiring. Curtis refilled his coffee and gave Michael one of his cigarettes to calm him down.

“Not everyone lives like this,” I said. “And don’t feel bad for Curtis.”

“No!” Curtis exclaimed. “Don’t pity me,” he said, pouring some whiskey in Michael’s coffee. “This will help you sleep tonight …” Curtis lit a cigarette and leaned back on his busted plastic chair. “Just understand that you got to be creative. Even if you got a home, you still got to pay rent — so you take in somebody now and then. Maybe you let your friend stay in the house and they watch your kid, or clean up, or pay you …” Curtis kept on talking. Michael kept on eating.

Sunday was much of the same. Michael struggled to finalize his budget, while Curtis escorted him around Chicago’s Southside neighborhoods. Curtis and I introduced Michael to friends who struggled like him to make ends meet.

Michael met Lena, a 45-year-old woman with three children who works part-time at a fast-food restaurant. She agreed to let Michael observe her strategies to put food on the table and keep her family together. Michael offered to pay her a fee for a week of conversation. Lena said, “How about we exchange our paychecks for one month.” Michael turned bright red.

At the end of the day, Michael showed us his creative budget to survive on the Chicago streets for one weekend. “Buy $20 of Yahoo stock. Hope for the best.”

Curtis laughed and we tallied up his expenses for the same time period:

$4.75 chicken wings and canned beans

$2.00 shirt, pair of socks

$2.00 coffee

$1.00 four loose cigarettes

$2.50 polish sandwich and fries

$2.00 rat infestation powder

$2.00 lock

$2.75 medicine, band aids

TOTAL: $19.00 (one dollar in savings)

Stay tuned.

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  1. Allen says:

    Keep the columns coming, Sudhir. I think we all can learn from them.

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  2. DB says:

    Drug use? I am curious….Past, present, future? If it was in the past, how did that fit into his budget? Lena too I guess.

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  3. nemo says:

    Just love your posts. Please keep them coming.

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  4. Jeff S. says:

    Awesome read! Being from a small town in South Carolina I’ve never lived in a big city (or been in one for more than 2 weeks) so it’s really interesting for me to read about things like this.

    Thanks for the great post Dr. Venkatesh

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  5. Jenna says:

    After reading this, I have a lot more faith in Michael than I did from your previous posts.

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  6. Nuclear Mom says:

    OMG, this is amazing. I am middle class and was feeling poor and sorry for myself. I’m impressed by Michael, for trying to understand and putting himself in embarrassing situations to do so; Curtis for living on nothing with dignity and a sense of humor; and you, Sudhir, for your great work in communicating other people’s lives to us. Thank you.

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  7. Will says:

    In spite of many of the negative comments from posters here, I give Michael a lot of credit for his willingness to learn. If more of us were as interested in seeing what goes on around us, the quicker many of these problems would be resolved.

    Sudhir, thanks for continuing to chronicle this.

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  8. Lee says:

    Similar issues have cropped up in recent months when the issue of minimum wage and living wages were being discussed. A lot of people in academia and in government make the case against minimum wage as it is anathema to free markets. I pose a challenge to these people especially now that a lot of them will be on summer recess. Why not spend at least 30 days living on minimum wage and see how they cope? This will give them the experience and moral compass needed to address the issue with the right knowledge.

    As for charitable contributions, the law of unintended consequences can sometimes be positive. An example is Howard Hughes Medical Institute which started as a tax-dodge and ended up being in the forefront of scientific research.

    Sometimes the best of intentions lead to more dependency of the part of the recipients and nothing more than a good feeling on the part of the giver.

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