In 2007, the Salwens, a family of four in Atlanta, sold their $2 million, 6,500-square-foot home—complete with three Viking stoves, Portuguese inlaid tile, and an elevator—and moved into a property half the size and with half the status, donating the difference to anti-hunger efforts in Ghana. Daughter Hannah gave up her gilded bedroom. Son Joseph yielded a gargantuan backyard. The Salwen parents said farewell to the elegant dining room where they hosted lavish fundraising parties for their favorite nonprofits.
In The Power of Half, his family’s new book about their experiment in a more challenging sort of altruism, Kevin Salwen asks, “Who intentionally goes backward?” It’s more than a question for the Salwens; it’s a question for our time.
“The trick is to be introspective, see what you have a surplus of, then get together with your family or community and decide how you can put that newfound resource to work,” Kevin Salwen told The Daily Beast.
Economic recession, climate change, downsizing, outsourcing, and layoffs have all put a decisive end to the more, better, faster mentality that took root in the America of the 1980s and 1990s. We have, in a sense, floated back down to earth. Some of us, it turns out, are actually happy to be here—exhausted by what Salwen terms the “Accumulation Years.” And many are searching for that most elusive of all things: deeper meaning.
Usually this quest is seen as a hero’s journey, one individual—Greg Mortensen opening schools in Afghanistan, Paul Farmer dedicating his life to public health in Haiti—on their own, seeking out the Holy Grail. The Salwens, though, turned social consciousness into a family affair. Stepping back from the videogames, volleyball practice, and lucrative consulting jobs, they asked themselves: “What did our family stand for?”
Their soul-searching began when 14-year-old Hannah saw a homeless man begging for money next to a Mercedes. “Dad, if that man”—she pointed to the Mercedes—“had a less nice car, that man there”—she pointed to the homeless man—“could have a meal.” Kevin, the quintessential modern dad, recognized a teachable moment: “But you know if we had a less nice car, he could have a meal.”
The seemingly radical events that followed—a rejection of the excesses of the über-affluent lifestyle—represent a more thoughtful than average sort of altruism. The Salwens underwent months of weekly family meetings in which they wrestled with the question of how to best invest their money in a better world.
The Power of Half is highly accessible, sure to be devoured by Oprah devotees and disaffected finance guys hoping for a jolt of optimism. Selling one’s home and giving away $800,000 is no small feat in a society that, for the past three decades at least, has not only condoned, but encouraged conspicuous consumption. And “the power of half” concept—if you can’t give up half your house, give half your TV time, or half your old coats—has wide and powerful implications.
As Salwen explained to The Daily Beast, “The trick is to be introspective, see what you have a surplus of, then get together with your family or community and decide how you can put that newfound resource to work.” After one recent television appearance, a producer told Salwen, “This may be the most expensive story I've ever done, because when I got home my wife asked, 'What can we live without?'”
In The Power of Half, the Salwens are characterized as relatable heroes, fumbling through the minefields of downsizing and international philanthropy. Kevin Salwen, a Wall Street Journal reporter for more than 18 years and the book’s primary writer, is well informed—noting that much of the $2.3 trillion of aid poured into Africa since the 1960s has not improved conditions much, and asking complex questions like, “Do we have enough humility to see our new partners (that is, the recipients) as equals?”
Yet The Power of Half can be disappointing, too. It lacks any systemic analysis; when the family chats around the table, they don’t plumb the causes—ranging from legacies of colonialism, racism, and economic isolation to contemporary government corruption—that allow Hannah the luxury of philosophizing about poverty while half a world away in Ghana, similar girls are often hungry and fighting just for the chance to get a basic education.
When asked about this gap in the analysis, Salwen responded, “I can't honestly say why these parts of our discussion aren't a bigger part of the book; maybe it's that they were an undertone to many discussions but never that overtly spoken.”
The moral philosopher Alasdair Macintyre wrote, “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’” The Salwens firmly locate themselves within the American Dream narrative—Kevin and Joan, children of schoolteachers, dreamed of bigger, bling-ier lives and got them, only to discover they were lacking deeper meaning. But they fail to locate themselves within an even larger story—one in which they were able to achieve that dream because of their own particular privileges—American-ness, for example.
Of course, it’s unfair to expect the Salwens to somehow overturn capitalism or come up with a family project that counters centuries of exploitation of Africa on the part of Western whites. And it’s hard to be too cynical about The Power of Half. In a country where the average person donates just 2 percent of their annual income, giving away half your home in a thoughtful way is truly extraordinary. So unusual, in fact, that it doesn’t sit well with many of the Salwens’ closest friends when they first started talking about the project. Salwen writes, “Perhaps there’s a stigma on people who give too much of their money. They’re seen as eccentrics who don’t know the value of money.”
Ultimately, Salwen toes a very practical line in The Power of Half. He asks, “How could we make sure others see us as like themselves, to be encouraging without being uncomfortably challenging?”
With that standard, the Salwens’ book succeeds admirably. It’s not a big house—nor a deep analysis of economic disparity, which is largely missing here—that mark this family as special. Rather, it’s their capacity to be both wholly ordinary and, simultaneously, extraordinarily generous.