Maddy Mitchell / Gavel Media

From Prime to Preschool: Bezos's Philanthropic Venture Draws Controversy

Jeff Bezos made headlines earlier this year when it came out that he would be worth over one trillion dollars by 2026. The Amazon CEO, currently worth approximately $178 billion, embodies the current billionaire class in America. Since the nation went into quarantine back in March, Amazon's fortune skyrocketed, netting Bezos $34.6 billion. While the rest of the United States economy faltered and unemployment rose to depression levels, Bezos and his cash cow thrived. 

Bezos returned to the spotlight most recently after announcing his plan to build and privately fund a preschool in an underfunded area. Named “Bezos Academy,” the school is set to open its doors in Des Moines, WA on October 19th, 2020. It will receive private funding from Bezos’ “Day One Fund” and work to serve low-income families of 3 to 5-year-old children. The academy notes how it aims to help communities based on their individual needs, citing, “a wide range of data, including income levels, participation in free and reduced-cost meal programs, and gaps in access to licensed child care providers,” according to Joseph Guzman, of The Hill. Guzman goes on to quote the academy’s website, where it labels the kids in their program as “the customers,” not unlike the customers of Amazon.com. 

Tech giants like Amazon have long been scrutinized over what they do with their money, and how they treat workers in their lowest ranks. Bezos in particular has come under fire in the past for mistreatment of workers and poor working conditions. Elites who face such dilemmas are known for their philanthropic giving. Charitable donations from the billionaire class look good from a media perspective. However, it is always important to keep in mind who is behind the donation—and why. 

So what’s wrong with the Bezos Academy? On the surface, the idea of a free preschool in an underfunded area sounds amazing. Education remains one of the largest barriers for low-income populations in America. Without education, inequality persists for generations. However, Bezos’ “Day One Fund” does not fit the bill. Right off the bat, he only created one school. One school does little in the way of making any significant change to educational inequality in the United States. We must also look at who Bezos aims to help. In some cases, it could be Bezos’ own workers and their children. Amazon has come under fire in the past for underpaying and overworking its employees. Quotas to get shipments out in time leave little to no time for breaks. Furthermore, Bezos only recently raised wages to $15 an hour, which he touts as a great achievement, even though it still leaves many struggling to pay for basic needs like childcare. Even so, shouldn’t we be happy that he’s doing something? 

Bezos has received backlash after announcing the school’s opening. Many have cited one glaring issue that has been raised with other billionaires: taxes. In recent news, President Donald Trump released his own returns. The New York Times reports that Trump only paid $750 in 2016 and 2017. He avoided paying taxes entirely for ten of the past fifteen years. Most Americans pay more than the self-proclaimed billionaire president every year (avg. tax payment $10,489). This exposé draws attention to Bezos and Amazon for their lack of tax payments. In 2019, the company paid its first federal taxes since 2016. While that seems like an open and shut case, the taxes it paid were insignificant, rounding out to a total of $162 million—or just 1.2% of reported profits. The federal tax rate for corporations stands at 21%. Amazon has avoided higher taxation with tax deductions and incentives granted by the U.S. government, as reported by The Wall Street Journal. 

Regardless of what Amazon the company pays, its CEO is another question. People took to Twitter to demand Bezos himself pay taxes, not just Amazon. Bezos’ own tax record is private information, and exactly what he pays in federal taxes is not publicly disclosed. However, from recent stories of Donald Trump, it is logical to suspect Bezos may not pay his fair share. The inconsistency in paying taxes rises with income levels, possibly because, “higher-income people are more likely to receive income from sources that are more difficult for the tax authority to monitor,” according to the National Tax Journal’s report in 2010.

So how did a philanthropic headline about educating children turn into a debate about federal taxes? Critics of Bezos would argue that instead of funding his own schools—an area in which he has no expertise—he should pay proper taxes. The government can pay for schools in a more widespread manner if given an adequate amount of tax dollars. The trickle-down economics espoused by Jeff Bezos and other industry giants is not very exciting for those who are on the receiving end. But, billionaires’ reluctance to pay taxes leaves the debate in gridlock. While Jeff Bezos claims to be helping, many see his contribution as a distraction from the true problem. 

Bezos’ Academy certainly does one thing right: it reminds us of a pervasive distrust between America’s rich and poor. Billionaires who do not pay taxes supposedly make up for it with philanthropic giving, but the lower class of America feels robbed, claiming that the upper echelon of society is apathetic toward them. They feel that these charities are only small fixes for much larger problems—problems caused by the billionaires. In an effort to create a charitable children’s school, Jeff Bezos has reignited class divisiveness. It remains to be seen how successful or widespread these academies will be. However, it is clear that the schools have already taught us one thing: the class struggle in America is very much alive.

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