The Con of Capitalist Philanthropy

The millionaire will be but a trustee for the poor; entrusted for a season with a great part of the increased wealth of the community, but administering it for the community far better than it could or would have done for itself.1

“The Gospel of Wealth”– Andrew Carnegie

In a confidence game, the illusion of simplicity provides a disguise for duplicity. Whether it’s the shuffling cup of the shell game or the dealer’s swift hand in three-card monte, the premises of most con games are simple. Follow the cup with the ball or pick the correct card. The actual mechanisms of the swindles are simple too. Slide the ball out or change the card with some sleight of hand. The more complex task of the conman is building his prey’s confidence so that they play a losing game and then blame themselves when they lose instead of the rigged conditions. To do this, the conman has to create an environment that convinces his targets that they have a good chance of winning. 

Origins of Capitalist Philanthropy

One of the robber barons of the “Gilded Age,” owner of the Carnegie Steel Company Andrew Carnegie understood the utility of philanthropy as an investment tool. An industrialist-capitalist, Andrew Carnegie wrote “The Gospel of Wealth” in 1889 as an instruction manual for the capitalist class on how to use philanthropy. It’s an instructional manual for capitalists to follow to increase their wealth, maintain their power, and maintain capitalism’s hegemony in society. It explains to them how to disguise their capital (re)investment as charity to assuage the rage of the poor and working masses.

Overall, Carnegie’s “gospel” instructs his fellow robbers to invest in “social capital” so that their class can be the de facto administrators of the state. The quote opening this article is inherently paternalistic, arguing that the rich should rule over the poor because their richness is proof of their ability to govern. This is underpinned by the idealistic notion that the rich got rich because of their thrift and penchant for saving and the poor got poor because they are irresponsible and impulsive. It completely ignores the built-in exploitation of capitalism and a slew of other intersecting issues.

From these conclusions arises this gospel’s justification for the exploitation of poor and working people by the capitalists. It’s what Carnegie used to deny his workers raises. It’s what’s used to justify tenants’ subordination to landlords. Control for more capital.

With one hand, Carnegie would give the appearance of giving by bloviating about his philanthropic endeavors and how other rich men should follow his example in his gospel. But with the other, he was punching down on his workers, calling on private police (Pinkerton Agency) and the state (National Guard to violently put down strikes like the Homestead strike of 1892 in Pennsylvania. He only was giving to get more. He appeared as a saint to hide the sin of exploitation, sanitizing the violence (the long hours, the low, the deadly conditions, and union/strikebreaking) of his capital accumulation with charity cons through donations and private, “not-for-profit” institutions. Despite these being “public gifts,” many of the Carnegie institutions were (and still are) accessible only to the most privileged (for example Carnegie Mellon University and Carnegie Hall).

Capitalist Philanthropy in Milwaukee

Moving to Milwaukee, although nowhere near the level of Andrew Carnegie in wealth or sophistication in capitalist philanthropy, slumlord Berrada Properties, owned by Youssef Berrada, announced its philanthropic endeavor “Berrada Scholars.”

Berrada’s exploitation of tenants is a different type compared to Carnegie’s exploitation of his workers, as these are two different economic relations even if they have similarities. Nonetheless, Berrada attempted the same tactic that Carnegie’s gospel taught (even if it’s dilapidated in comparison to the originator).

(Running the same con game, except his hand is not swift enough for the sleight. He fumbles the card, panicking, he tries to self-correct but overcompensates. He knocks the table over, now everyone sees it. Overwhelmed by fear, looking for a distraction. He shits himself. Now everyone smells it too.)

A meager program that featured a couple of thousand dollars and some laptops for a handful of kids. A probable public relations move through a bullshit program throwing out a couple of crumbs to a couple of tenants’ kids. The money awarded wasn’t even given directly to the families but rather to “an online savings account” for college run by a state non-profit.  But if you were a Berrada tenant behind on rent, you were disallowed from entering. (Too bad for those kids, apparently). If this was a strictly charitable act, why wouldn’t those kids get a chance to win something? 

Let’s not even get into the kids of the families Berrada’s evicted.

Nah, let’s get into it. 

How did this paltry program help the kids who got evicted with their families? How did it help all the kids who live in slum conditions in Berrada apartments? It didn’t. However, we do know that evictions and slum conditions do enormous amounts of harm to kids.  

Effects of Evictions and Slum Housing on Kids

Drexel University College of Medicine Associate Professor Daniel R. Taylor testified at a Philadelphia City Council (2017) hearing that, “science has shown that children who live in stressful environments, such as substandard housing, the threat of eviction, homelessness, and poverty, have changes in their neurological system that affects their ability to learn, to focus, and to resolve conflicts.”2 

Kids facing homelessness and housing instability face extreme negative impacts on their educational outcomes. A study on third graders showed that housing instability caused kids to be twice as likely to perform below grade level in mathematics and worse in reading compared to kids in stable housing. On top of that, they were 3 times more likely to repeat a grade, and their chances of graduating were reduced by more than 50%.3

 A Seattle study on eviction saw 87.5% of survey responders with school-age kids report that their kids’ school performance suffered “very much” because of eviction.4 Kids dealing with housing instability and homelessness can miss lots of school, have to switch schools more often, fall behind, and are more likely to experience behavioral issues.5 

With these studies and Berrada’s predilection for eviction and the prevalence of slum conditions at various buildings under their ownership, whatever potential, minuscule good that the “Berrada Scholars” program did will pale in comparison to the potential damage done to the educational outcomes of kids. Especially black kids as most of Berrada’s tenants are black, at the moment. And it seems clear, that most of the potential “good” that comes from this little bit of philanthropy will be reserved for Berrada in the form of good public relations.

Not Buying the Bullshit

When the news outlet that produced the story published it on Facebook, most people saw through the bullshit. Most of the commenters on Facebook derided it and made fun of the program and Berrada. “TWO scholarships ought to make the thousands of his tenants realize he’s a good guy after all,” said one person sarcastically. Another person said, “Crumbs to what he makes off the city if we’re being serious.” “Publicity stunt to try to salvage their image. “And it’s a tax break for them. And a tiny amount of money compared to huge profits. Use the money to make your units affordable and liveable for your tenants,” remarked another.6

Sometimes you fool none of the people, none of the time.

So was the fate of this attempt to gain social capital. 

The only ones buying and/or bumping the bullshit are people like former city inspector and current Berrada PR-hype man Archie Blunt, who is quoted in the article saying, “The management team and the ownership team are very conscientious people who have warm hearts, and you don’t hear that a lot.”7 Archie should’ve let everyone know who he’s hearing that from. It doesn’t seem like many people outside of the Berrada circle or certain city politicians. Maybe where that is coming from is sellout aldermen, Berrada lawyers, or his own mind, but not from the people, it seems.

Fight for Power not Philanthropy

Just like we can speculate that Canegie’s workers would have had better uses for the wealth their labor created over his “philanthropy,” we can speculate Berrada tenants would make better uses of the money that gets taken from them in the form of rent. How much more could they pour into their kids, their families, and themselves if they didn’t have to pour into the coffers of Berrada for the “privilege” of living in his housing, some of which may or may not be in slum conditions? How much better would the housing be if tenants just had to pay for the maintenance and renovation of their homes and not for the increase of Berrada’s wealth and capital? We can speculate that all these aspects of their lives would improve more than dilapidated capitalist philanthropy can offer.

These questions can be asked regarding the overall situation of landlords exploiting working-class tenants. Not just this one. And to fix it here, we have to change the whole thing. But as the tenant struggle movement fights here, we gain experience and insight that can be applied to changing the whole thing.

Capitalist philanthropy is another con game. It uses charity as a cover to hide the theft of individual capitalists and capitalism as a whole. Give some money to this non-profit, give some money to that non-profit, or establish your own “non-profit” foundation, and in return (and they’re always looking for a return) they get social capital. Plainly put, capitalists get to look like good, generous people who are using their wealth “right” because they are “helping” the poor. But when you have the tools to analyze the situation, you find out that they are really helping themselves. Even though they are giving, they are the ones getting the most out of it.

The duplicity and complicity of the situation, in Milwaukee and overall, is nothing short of a capitalist con.


1. Carnegie, A. (2019). The Gospel of Wealth | Carnegie Corporation of New York. Carnegie Corporation of New York.

2. Eviction Free Milwaukee Annual Independent Evaluation September 1, 2021 to December 31, 2022 . (n.d.).

3. ibid

4. Cookson, T., Diddams, M., Maykovich, X., & Witter, E. (2018). LOSING HOME The Human Cost of Eviction in Seattle A Report by the Seattle Women’s Commission and the Housing Justice Project of the King County Bar Association.

5. Eviction Free Milwaukee Annual Independent Evaluation September 1, 2021 to December 31, 2022 . (n.d.).

6. Facebook

7. Byers, P. (2023, November 1). One of Milwaukee’s most controversial landlords is providing scholarships to tenants | Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service.