Chuck Collins’ first job out of college was to work with mobile homeowners in New England to help them organize and buy their parks as resident-owned cooperatives, to escape the cycle of ever-rising rents. While working in Western Massachusetts with a group of 30 mobile homeowners struggling to raise the necessary resources, Chuck was holding on to a “dirty little secret”: as the great-grandson of the Chicago meatpacker Oscar Mayer (an iconic brand in the US renowned for its catchy advertising jingles and Weinermobile), Chuck, still pimply faced at the time, was a multi-millionaire who single-handedly could write a check to make it possible for the 30 families to buy the park – with only a negligible impact on his personal finances.
Chuck was seriously (and silently) considering doing just that, when the group gifted him something much more valuable: they taught him the power of solidarity and community. At that moment, they heroically dug deeper and supported one another (oftentimes anonymously) to come up with the necessary down payment in a way that preserved the dignity of each.
At age 26, this powerful experience defined Chuck’s path. Realizing that “there was no rationale that could justify this disparity” whereby his inherited wealth was increasing through no sweat of his own, but wages were going down for so many, he decided to give away his wealth. “I wrote my parents a letter thanking them for the tremendous opportunities this wealth made possible. And I explained that while having the money was a boost in helping pay for my education, it was now a barrier to my making my own way in the world. I intended to ‘pass the wealth on.’” Chuck signed the paperwork to transfer all the funds in his name to four grant-making foundations, maintaining no financial cushion or “rainy day” fund for himself.
That this decision was not a whimsical flight of idealistic fancy has been born out over the decades: Chuck has been working diligently and strategically against economic inequality for his entire adult life. Decades after he gave away his wealth, Chuck wrote, “I have no regrets. If anything, I feel liberated. My decision enabled me to live my life more aligned to my values. It opened up a source of energy.”
Chuck is a storyteller, writer, researcher, and campaigner working to reverse the extreme inequalities of wealth and power – and heal the social and ecological harms resulting from societal inequities. Since 2006, he has been Director of the Program on Inequality and the Common Good at the Institute for Policy Studies where he co-edits Inequality.org.
His most recent book, The Wealth Hoarders: How Billionaires Pay Millions to Hide Trillions (Polity Books) examines the global hidden wealth system and the role of enablers and gatekeepers, such as tax attorneys, wealth managers, and family offices. In a YES Magazine article about wealth advisors that “help the rich let go,” Collins urged families to redirect “their wealth to heal the harms created by the initial extraction of that wealth.”
Collins worked to brief foreign reporters about US wealth hiding systems in advance of the recent publication of the Pandora Papers. He has worked since 1999 on various efforts to organize wealthy people to advocate for progressive tax policies and preserve the federal estate tax, the only tax on inherited wealth. He was co-author, with Bill Gates Sr., of Wealth and Our Commonwealth: Why America Should Tax Accumulated Wealth (Beacon Press).
His perspectives about wealth and inheritance are discussed in his popular book, Born on Third Base (Chelsea Green). He has been featured in many interviews, including an NPR Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross and in Sun Magazine.
Chuck is co-founder of Wealth for the Common Good, a network of business leaders, high-income households and partners working together to promote shared prosperity and fair taxation. This network merged in 2015 with the Patriotic Millionaires, a national network of high net worth individuals advocating for higher taxes on the wealthy, a living wage, and campaign finance reform. Between 1983 and 1992, Collins worked for the Institute for Community Economics, helping grassroots housing cooperatives and community land trusts built and preserve affordable housing. Thereafter, from 1993 to 2006, he worked on issues of tax fairness and inequality, co-founding United for a Fair Economy.
Currently living near Brattleboro, Vermont, Collins is co-author of several reports including “The Road To Zero Wealth: How the Racial Wealth Divide is Hollowing Out America’s Middle Class,” “Billionaire Bonanza: The Forbes 400 and the Rest of Us” and “Gilded Giving: Top Heavy Philanthropy in an Age of Extreme Inequality.” Other books include: Is Inequality in America Irreversible? (published by the Oxford, UK-based Polity Press); and 99 to 1: How Wealth Inequality is Wrecking the World and What We Can Do About It. He is co-author with Mary Wright of The Moral Measure of the Economy, a book about Christian ethics and economic life.
Please join us in conversation with this principled advocate for justice and equality who has uniquely walked – and is walking – his talk!