“We know for a fact that if a kid falls behind it’s really, really hard to catch up,” Bezos said Thursday evening at an event hosted by the Economic Club of Washington. “If you can give somebody a leg up when they’re 2, 3 or 4 years old, by the time they get to kindergarten or first grade, they’re much less likely to fall behind. You’re really improving their odds.”
The announcement comes a few weeks after the first major political contribution from Bezos and his wife, MacKenzie: a $10 million gift to a super PAC focused on electing veterans to public office. In January, he said he would donate $33 million to a scholarship fund for young “dreamers,” immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
“As an individual commitment, $2 billion is pretty high, but it’s not in the league of a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation,” which last year had a $50.7 billion endowment, said Kyle Caldwell, executive director of the Johnson Center for Philanthropy at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Mich. “But this is part of a wave we’re seeing within Silicon Valley, where a number of successful entrepreneurs are looking at philanthropy to have a greater impact.”
Bezos, whose net worth is estimated at about $164 billion, has been criticized for not doing more to support charities, as other billionaires have, including Gates, Warren Buffett and Mark Zuckerberg. And Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has held Bezos up as an example of a leader of a company that does not pay its workers enough.
“Thousands of Amazon workers have to rely on food stamps, Medicaid and public housing to survive,” Sanders tweeted earlier this month. “That is what a rigged economy looks like.”
On Twitter Thursday, Bezos said he would create a “Families Fund” that would “issue annual leadership awards to organizations and civic groups doing compassionate, needle-moving work to provide shelter and hunger support to address the immediate needs of young families."
A separate “Academies Fund” would open and operate “a network of high-quality, full-scholarship, Montessori-inspired preschools in underserved communities,” he wrote.
Bezos’s announcement comes on the heels of a number of high-profile philanthropic efforts by the country’s tech billionaires. In 2010, Buffett and Gates created the Giving Pledge, which calls on billionaires to pledge the majority of their wealth to charity. Nearly 200 people from 22 countries have signed on, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Tesla’s Elon Musk, Carl Icahn, T. Boone Pickens and Ted Turner. Bezos was absent from the list.
On Thursday night, Bezos said he was not sure how much he would ultimately commit to charity or whether he would give away the majority of his wealth.
“What will my legacy be?” he said. “I have no idea.”
Zuckerberg, who founded Facebook a decade after Bezos created Amazon, said three years ago that he and his wife, Priscilla Chan, would eventually give away 99 percent of their Facebook shares — worth $45 billion at the time — to efforts including eliminating “all disease in our children’s lifetime.”
Charitable giving has become particularly important, experts say, amid rising income inequality in the United States.
“We live in an age in which the winners have done incredibly well and perhaps the majority of working Americans haven’t,” said Anand Giridharadas, author of “Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World.” “So when someone like Jeff Bezos admirably steps into the area of giving, it’s helpful, but we also have systematic problems in wages and labor, health care and education that need to be addressed at the root.”
Last year, Bezos took to Twitter to request ideas for how he could use his vast fortune for good. He wrote that he wanted to help “people in the here and now — short term — at the intersection of urgent need and lasting impact.”
In coming to his decision on what areas to pursue, he said in his Twitter statement Thursday that he wants to continue finding ways to improve society from one generation to the next. “Where’s the good in the world, and how can we spread it?” he wrote. “Where are the opportunities to make things better? These are exciting questions.”
He cited his work at his space company, Blue Origin, and his investment, estimated now at $1 billion a year, “in the future of our planet and civilization through the development of foundational space infrastructure.” He said he was supporting “American democracy through stewardship of the Washington Post” and pointed to the contributions he has given to cancer research, marriage equality and college scholarships for immigrant students.
At the Economic Club discussion Thursday night, in response to a question from moderator David Rubenstein about criticism of The Post, Bezos said public officials shouldn’t lash out at the news media.
“If you’re the president of the United States, you don’t take that job thinking you’re not going to be scrutinized,” Bezos said, adding that he had had “a couple of conversations” with Trump, though he declined to elaborate. “You’re going to get scrutinized, and it’s healthy. What the president should say is, ‘This is right, this is good. I’m glad I’m being scrutinized.’ That would be so secure and confident. But it’s really dangerous to demonize the media. It’s dangerous to call the media lowlifes. It’s dangerous to say they’re the enemy of the people.”
Asked about concerns that Amazon is becoming too big, Bezos said he welcomes the scrutiny. “All big institutions of any kind are going to be — and should be — examined, scrutinized, inspected,” he told Rubenstein, a founder of the Carlyle Group, a Washington-based private equity firm. But he said that there are some things only very large companies can do.
“It’s really important that politicians and others understand the value big companies bring and not demonize or vilify business,” Bezos said. “Nobody in their garage is going to build an all-carbon-fiber, fuel-efficient Boeing 747. It’s not going to happen. You need Boeing to do that. If you like your iPhone, you need Apple to do that. You need Samsung to do that. Entrepreneurial capitalism does those things very well.”
Philanthropy experts called the approach Bezos unveiled Thursday direct and pragmatic but said its success would depend largely on how the money was allocated and how willing the billionaire was to make changes along the way.
“There’s been a movement away from Band-Aid solutions,” said Ray Madoff, director of the Boston College Law School Forum on Philanthropy and the Public Good. “Bezos’s response reflects the reality that people feel, which is that there are a lot of real problems not being addressed.”
Avo Makdessian, a vice president at the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, a nonprofit that manages donations for philanthropists, including many tech billionaires, said he hoped Bezos’s pledge would help inspire other wealthy Americans — as well as the government — to take similar action.
“We’re hoping that local, state and federal governments see this as a call to invest more in preschool and child care,” he said. “Frankly, philanthropy can’t fund all of society’s challenges."