Jeff Bezos, who is both famously uncharitable and the wealthiest man in modern history, announced today via a tweet that he’d be allocating $2 billion—a little over 1 percent of his net worth—to housing and educating underserved communities. So, where’s the catch?
The $2 billion is, as best we can tell, to be divided between the Day 1 Families Fun and the Day 1 Academies Fund, which will provide homeless services and operate “Montessori-inspired preschools,” respectively. Notably absent is how the money will be divvied up between the two, or over what period of time.
Given all at once, $2 billion would put a major dent in the hundreds of thousands of Americans without housing—though in all likeliness these funds would be spread over a decade or more. Recall also that Amazon lobbied hard (and successfully) to repeal a progressive tax in its home city of Seattle that would have taken funds from large corporations and earmarked it to combat the region’s epidemic of homelessness.
Where a “network” of Bezos preschools is concerned, we should be especially skeptical. AltSchool—the Mark Zuckerberg and Peter Thiel-backed grade schools—abruptly shuttered two of its four locations last year and is now looking to partner with existing public schools. The construction of the Primary School, another Zuckerberg venture, led to the mass eviction of families in the area. WeWork has moved into the creation or acquisition of design, coding, and grade schools. (Disclosure: Peter Thiel secretly funded a lawsuit that bankrupted Gizmodo’s former parent company, Gawker Media.)
At best, these end up as destructive, expensive follies; at worst, they create a monopolistic path directly from early education to employment under the auspices of a single company—something Amazon already dipped a toe in by seeding a logistics mentorship program at a high school in San Bernardino, California.
This fear, of course, is reliant upon any of this $2 billion materializing. We reached out to Amazon for more information and were directed to contact four individuals who were “briefed and are willing to talk to media”—the CEOs of Community of Hope, the National Alliance to End Homelessness the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, and Mary’s Place (which receives a special mention in Bezos’s announcement.) Amazon would not provide comment on the Day 1 Fund or contact information for anyone directly involved in disbursement.
Nan Roman, of the National Alliance to End Homelessness, and Jesse Rasmussen, of Buffett Early Childhood Fund, were the two suggested contacts who were able to provide comment. Neither was aware of any information beyond what was disclosed by Bezos, and both said their organizations had not been asked to advise the use of the Day 1 funds. While Roman and Rasmussen each expressed excitement at the possibility of new philanthropic investment in their areas of concern, neither seemed entirely sure why Amazon had recommended them as points of contact for media inquiries.
The paucity of information is particularly jarring considering Bezos had months to prepare. The Amazon CEO began crowdfunding ideas on how to spend his considerable wealth back in June, and the lack of specific details, from him or his team, suggests the Day 1 Fund announcement is less a sincere move into philanthropy than another salvo in Amazon’s ongoing charm offensive—which famously involved astroturfed PR bought with gift cards.
I want to believe Jeff Bezos has turned over a new leaf, that the growing concern over the working conditions alleged to Gizmodo and other outlets by his own workers has led the CEO to consider humanity at large a worthy investment. I’m going to need a few answers first.
Update 9/13/18 4:17pm: Kelly Sweeney McShane of Washington, DC’s Community of Hope returned out request for comment and also had no additional information, nor had her organization been approached to receive or coordinate donations from the Day 1 Fund.
Update 9/13/18 4:17pm: We reached out to the office of Kshama Sawant, one of the Seattle City Council members who fought against the repeal of the so-called “head tax” on this announcement. Her statement is below:
Amazon and Jeff Bezos exposed their ruthlessly exploitative practices during the Tax Amazon struggle, threatening to end construction and lay workers off to stop a tax that Bezos could pay for each year with just one hour of his income. Nationwide, working people are outraged at the abysmal wages and working conditions faced by Amazon warehouse workers. Bezos is now attempting to mitigate his image, which is evidence of the impact of our movement. Rather than buy into the false idea of corporate philanthropy, which we know is used to try and paper over systemic exploitation of workers and our communities, our movements should continue fighting to tax big business to fund affordable housing and services, and to unionize warehouse and tech workers
Sawant also drew attention to the Stop BEZOS Act, legislation proposed by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, to tax big businesses whose workers are paid so little that they remain reliant on social safety net programs like SNAP.