Why Multimillionaire Donations to Maui do more Harm than Good  

FILE – The hall of historic Waiola Church in Lahaina and nearby Lahaina Hongwanji Mission are engulfed in flames along Wainee Street, Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2023, in Lahaina, Hawaii. Photo by Matthew Thayer/AP Photo.

When I was a kid, I thought billionaires were good. I grew up reading Batman and Iron Man comics, leading me to believe that billionaires were society’s best and would be the ones to protect us. However, as time has gone on, I’ve realized that our current elite class was way more similar to Lex Luthor than to Bruce Wayne. 

Take the heartbreaking events on the Hawaiian island, Maui. The island is recovering from a devastating series of wildfires that started Aug. 8. While the fires are contained, the damage the local community has suffered cannot be understated. As of writing this, there are 115 confirmed deaths and thousands of people displaced. 

On Aug. 29, in a joint video posted on social media, former television host Oprah Winfrey and actor Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson announced that in order to help the people of Maui who were affected by the wildfires, they would launch the People’s Fund of Maui, a charity meant to help “put money into the hands of people who need it.” 

Additionally, Johnson and Winfrey put up $10 million ($5 million each) as the “seed money” for this investment fund and then called on people to donate. Winfrey stated “This is how you help the people of Maui” 

This seems like a good thing right? Our wealthy class is stepping up to help the people of Maui who really need it. Well, yes and no. I want to be clear: Anyone in Maui benefiting from the money that Winfrey and Johnson put forward is a good thing. But these two could both be doing more for Maui, and frankly, they owe it to the people of Maui to do so. 

Winfrey is worth over $2.5 billion, while Johnson has an estimated net worth of over $800 million. In addition, both of them own property in Maui; Winfrey brought her home for $6.6 million, while Johnson bought his for $15 million

Maui was suffering a housing crisis before the wildfires began. One of the greatest drivers of Maui’s current housing crisis is the influx of houses being purchased by rich buyers from the United States. Celebrities like Winfrey, Johnson, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, founder of PayPal Peter Theil and others are directly responsible for pushing up the median price of a home in Maui to $1 million. 

The most frustrating thing when it comes to this situation is that I don’t doubt the genuine concern that Winfrey and Johnson have for the people of Maui. But for those two to only donate $5 million when we are looking at an estimated cost of $4-$6 billion in property damage and then call on normal people who are still struggling with inflation to foot the rest of the bill while having access to money we could only dream of is a sick joke. 

This is how much wealth we are talking about when it comes to the people buying these homes in Maui. President Biden announced that he would pledge $95 million dollars from his infrastructure bill towards helping rebuild Maui. Buyers like Bezos and Winfrey could match that donation to the dollar and they would still be billionaires. 

But instead, they will get to keep their property, not be impacted by the fires in any real way and can simply return to Maui whenever they want while the actual citizens of Maui have to pick up the pieces. 

The people of Maui deserve our compassion and help. Any dollar that could go towards helping them is a dollar well spent. However, we should also be keenly aware that part of the reason that a large percentage of the population of Maui will struggle to find somewhere to live in the wake of the fire’s destruction is a result of the actions and money of the rich. 

I know sometimes people like to say “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” when it comes to charitable donations, but when it comes to the uber-wealthy and their charity, just remember that gift horse is probably a Trojan horse. 


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