Jeff Bezos’s ex-wife’s $4bn charity donations sparks debate about capitalism and wealth

Former wife of Amazon CEO and world's richest man, Mackenzie Scott
Former wife of Amazon CEO and world's richest man, Mackenzie Scott
dpa/AFP via Getty Images

The world’s richest woman just donated billions of dollars to 384 organizations  – but some people don’t think it’s that straight forward.

MacKenzie Scott, a novelist and Jeff Bezos’s ex-wife, announced on Tuesday her second major charitable contribution of the year – giving away nearly $4.2 billion to hundreds of different organizations to help those affected by the pandemic.

"The pandemic has been a wrecking ball in the lives of Americans already struggling," Scott wrote in a Medium post. "Economic losses and health outcomes alike have been worse for women, for people of color, and for people living in poverty. Meanwhile, it has substantially increased the wealth of billionaires."

Organisations that received funds included HBCUs – historically Black universities and colleges – as well as Goodwill, Meals on Wheels, YMCA, the NAACP, Global Fund for Women, etc. which all provide services for under-resourced communities and take on institutional discrimination.

Many received this as “wonderful” news, with many people calling it “AMAZING”, “incredible” and “generous”.

At a time when so many organisations in the US are chronically under-funded, an endowment of this kind could make a huge financial difference especially during the pandemic. 

“Her gifts include $50 million to Prairie View A&M, and $40 million to Morgan State -- DOUBLING the school's endowment. This is how you do it, donating to schools that educate working-class people, not to elite schools that are already swimming in money,” Nikole Hannah-Jones tweeted.

And while it is crucial to ‘even the playing field’ as it were, the massive donation has sparked online debate about considering why these types of donations like these are necessary, and whether we should be skeptical of the root causes behind billionaire philanthropy.

Scott is currently the world's 18th-richest person with a net worth of $60.7 billion – according to theBloomberg Billionaires Index – and her fortune  has soared as Amazon's stock has surged during the pandemic. (Scott received a quarter of Bezos' Amazon shares following their 2019 divorce.)

As James Moore wrote in The Independent, “Big philanthropy serves to highlight the failures of taxation systems that leave democratic governments starved of funds to distribute to the needy, to fund research, to invest in education themselves.”

In other words, people’s well-being should not be dependent on the whims of billionaires – no matter how well-intentioned – due to failures in economic systems.

This is of course not to mention Scott’s wealth is derived from from Amazon shares that have benefitted not only from the pandemic, but from a poorly-treated, non-unionised workforce.

As one person on Twitter put it, “Jeff-Bezos’s-ex-wife is distributing a tiny fraction" of her wealth.

“Great but this should’ve happened involuntarily via taxation instead of relying on our nobility’s generosity like the Middle Ages,” one person responded to the news. Another, however, said, “Good for her! I hope other billionaires step up and follow her example.”

It’s a thorny situation that requires carefully parsing government funding and taxation, the ethics of being a billionaire – no matter your intentions, workers’ rights, and, well, the current state of capitalism in the midst of a massive global health crisis.

And while Scott is certainly not at fault for giving away wealth towards more-than-worthy causes, moments like these require a full re-examination of why ‘incredible’ acts like these are even necessary.

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