MELISSA BLOCK, host:
850,000 low-income children in New York state are getting a bonus - $200 each, intended to help cover the cost of back-to-school supplies. The money comes in part from billionaire financier and philanthropist George Soros. Soros has handed out billions in charitable donations over the years. He has also used his fortune to try to move the political dial. In 2004, he fiercely opposed the re-election of George W. Bush spending more than $15 million and calling the effort the central focus of his life. As Soros announced this latest donation today, he spoke of his own memories of living during tough economic times. And George Soros joins me now from New York. Thanks for being with us.
Mr. GEORGE SOROS (Philanthropist): It's my pleasure.
BLOCK: Why don't you explain for us the idea behind this $35 million gift of yours today? Why do this?
Mr. SOROS: Well, because we are in a particularly difficult period with a very severe recession - and when philanthropy has been badly hit by the financial crisis. And I feel that people who can afford it, should step up to the plate and actually increase their philanthropic donations.
BLOCK: And how will this work for a family in New York that gets public assistance, or is on food stamps. What will happen to get this money?
Mr. SOROS: That's one of the things that appealed to me — that there are no strings attached and they don't need to apply — it just comes to them.
BLOCK: No strings attached, which I guess also means that the family could use the $200 for anything. Really, there's no way to know if they actually will be buying clothes and supplies for school.
Mr. SOROS: That's true. But it is focused on people who are on food stamps and public assistance. And people who are on food stamps are people who normally take care of themselves and now are unemployed or low-income or whatever. And I don't think one needs to set additional conditions.
BLOCK: We should explain that your $35 million gift to New York state is being then matched by, what, 140 million federal dollars, emergency funds.
Mr. SOROS: That's right. I basically tapped into the stimulus because the state has to put up 20 percent matching funds to earn the stimulus. And New York state is not in a position to put up this money because they have to cut their own budget. So they couldn't have done it without my contribution. And so my $35 million becomes $170 million and that's called leverage. Then of course, we got into trouble by overusing leverage, but in this case I think leverage is being well used.
BLOCK: This is good leverage.
Mr. SOROS: Yes, I think so.
BLOCK: I gather this was spawned in part by your own experience, memories of your own experience during times of hardship.
Mr. SOROS: Well, what happened was that when I was a recipient of aid or in need of help and I was a student in London, and I was working at night as a waiter, my tutor found out about it and she submitted my name to the Quakers. And then I got a check without any strings attached for 40 pounds. And so it gives me a personal satisfaction to be able to do it on a much larger scale.
BLOCK: I'd like to take this chance, Mr. Soros, to talk with you more broadly about the economy and what's going on. Do you think that we are stepping back from the economic precipice? Where are we in this recession right now?
Mr. SOROS: Well, the stimulus has helped to find the bottom. I think we are going to have a good quarter coming up because of the Cash For Clunkers scheme, but that's a very temporary lift. I think that the longer term effects are going to be with us for quite sometime because consumers, who have not been saving at all because of the value of the houses going up and now the value of the houses has gone down - and they must save.
BLOCK: You said you thought the stimulus helped to find the bottom. About six months ago, when you're asked about President Obama's stimulus plan you said it is not enough to turn the situation around. Do you think it's working any better than you thought six months ago?
Mr. SOROS: It is actually working better than I thought. And altogether the Obama administration has chosen to sort of exploit what they call the confidence multiplier to make people feel better and it is helpful. But there is an underlying reality and I think that we are facing a protected period of slow growth at best. And that has to do with the need for the banks to earn their way out of a hole, which is going to weigh on the economy for years to come.
BLOCK: Well George Soros, thanks very much for talking with us.
Mr. SOROS: With pleasure.
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