The Gatepost Editorial: Notre Dame devastation exposes income inequality

Following a fire that destroyed parts of the roof of Notre Dame, millionaires around the world banded together and raised over $1 billion for its restoration.

Galvanized by the desire to offer up their own funds to repair a historic and religious site, these wealthy citizens met and exceeded the complete cost of the renovation within a few days.

But while the world mourns the loss of some historical architecture, another fire continues to blaze among working-class citizens in France.

The Yellow Vest Protest – which began in November 2018 – brought nearly 32,000 French citizens into the streets when President Emmanuel Macron enacted plans to raise taxes that  disproportionately targeted lower-income families living outside of Paris.

The protests, which have grown steadily in size, have gained some attention from the media, However, they have been largely lost in the past weeks due to the fire at Notre Dame.

Protesters are demanding fairer taxation practices and an increase in social programs that would aid those in poverty. Citizens have been forced to the streets for their demands to be heard, and many of their issues remain unresolved.

The speed with which these funds were raised has been met with skepticism by Yellow Vest protesters, who say these millionaires should be donating to organizations that help relieve homelessness and poverty.

Unrest and income inequality are not problems limited to France. Our own country struggles with a severe disparity of wealth between millionaires and the average American.

According to CNBC, the top 1% of earners in the United States own 40% of the wealth in the country. And the difficulty regular citizens face when raising money for local causes and disasters in our own country truly demonstrates the disparity between the two groups.

In the United States, three historically black churches in Louisiana were burned to the ground under suspicious circumstances. Over the course of two weeks, it took over 39,000 people to raise $2 million through GoFundMe.

When Notre Dame caught fire, it only took a handful of millionaires a few days to scrape together over a billion dollars – and for a building that was already supported by government funds.

While this iconic piece of history deserves to be rebuilt, there was never a question that it would be. But for the three churches in Louisiana, crowdfunding became the only community’s only possibility for recourse.

Through pleas on social media the funds steadily grew. But, there were no millionaires pledging hundreds of thousands of dollars, no promises that government coffers would support any rebuilding.

Given that in the United States 78% of the population working paycheck-to-paycheck, according to Forbes, it becomes nearly impossible for citizens to entirely privately crowd-fund local causes that require millions of dollars.

There are shades of difference between the social situations in the United States and France, of course, but this issue has captivated the imaginations of people on both sides of the ocean, and so it provides a lens through which we can examine income inequality across the spectrum.

For the Notre Dame, one wealthy benefactor was able to donate over $100 million – nearly fifty times the amount 39,000 people were able to raise for the churches. A day later, another French millionaire doubled that donation and contributed another $200 million.

The total renovation cost for Notre Dame has been estimated at most $600 million, was met in fewer than five days from exorbitant donations.

That is income inequality.

Wealth wields power, and where the rich choose to spend their money plays a large role in the causes our society to support.

If the billionaires had been inspired by the Yellow Vest Protests instead of the Notre Dame fire, a billion dollars could have sent a powerful message and been used to enact real social change.

The head of a French trade union, Philippe Martinez, told The Washington Post, “If they can give tens of millions to rebuild Notre Dame, then they should stop telling us there is no money to help with the social emergency.”

Watching how quickly a few billionaires can secure funds drives home the reality that, if they so desired, the world’s wealthiest top tier of citizens could be powerful driving forces in eradicating hunger, poverty, and other crippling inequalities.  

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