Is the United States coming apart at the seams?

Could be. Our political leaders don’t debate any more. They’re too busy loudly accusing “the other side” of promoting policies that will destroy the country. So much for compromise and civility.

Angry, unbending political partisanship isn’t the only thing that’s polarizing us to pieces.  The income gap between the rich and poor is at an 80-year high and widening. There are today 43.6 million people living below the poverty line. That’s 1 in 7 Americans. For the most part, rich people remain both untouched and out of touch with all this.

Example: On June 14, 2009, I posted a blog criticizing Bill Gates and Warren Buffet for refusing to let the press in on a meeting they convened last year in New York. A meeting of America’s wealthiest philanthropists.

My gripe was that in a country shaken by recession, unemployment and Madoff-style thievery, we deserve to know what, if anything, these movers and shakers are up to. After all, their decisions can affect and possibly help millions.

I have yet to hear from either Bill or Warren. It hurts, but I’ll ignore the snub and refer you to this summer’s pronouncement from on high. In case you missed it, they along with 38 other richer-than-rich guys who presumably attended the NY meeting, have agreed to donate big chunks of their wealth to charity.

You’d expect moneyed folks to hail this generous commitment as proof that the less government messes with their incomes, the more funds they can direct toward lifting people out of poverty.

But you’d be only half right.

They rejoice whenever a federal control is lifted. But they don’t celebrate the event by giving more financial help to the poor, as writer Judith Warner explains in a New York Times Magazine article (8.22.10).

She cites a 2007 report from Indiana University’s Center on Philanthropy that found “only a small percentage of charitable giving by the wealthy was actually going to the needs of the poor; instead it was mostly directed to other causes—cultural institutions, for example, or their alma maters.” This, notes Ms. Warner, often produces “the not-inconsequential payoff of enhancing the donor’s status among his or her peers.”

Adding irony to egomania, studies show that proportionately lower income Americans contribute more to charity than upper income groups. Empathy and compassion seem to be “key ingredients in the greater generosity of those with lower incomes. And these two traits proved to be in increasingly short supply as people moved up the income spectrum,” according to Ms. Warner.

Nevertheless, there is still good reason to thank Bill and Warren, along with their 38 caring friends, plus Facebook’s 26-year-old rookie billionaire-philanthropist of the year, Mark Zuckerberg. They, and many other big givers in America, have done much on behalf of the poor.

What we need now is for them to stop building so many damn monuments to themselves. Then they can start rebuilding even more lives.