We live in two Americas: “America the Selfish” and “America the Charitable,” according to Arthur Brooks. If one maps these two Americas, their boundaries align closely to the political blue and red states: the red states give more. The bright line that delineates the charitable from the selfish is their convictions, both political and religious. And research shows that conservative people of faith put their money where a secular liberal’s mouth is.
Brooks is a professor of public administration at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, and a consummate cruncher of numbers. When he received his first results, he did not believe them—or did not want to. So he ran them again. He had assumed that the people who are most vociferous about socioeconomic inequality would give the most to alleviate it. He was shocked to find that is not the case. Brooks came up with some eye-opening conclusions:
- Despite their reputation as “caring,” political liberals give less of their income to charitable causes than conservatives.
- People who mistrust big government give more of their money and time as volunteers to take care of the poor themselves.
- Government spending displaces private dollars to charities, weakening their ability to garner private support.
- People who are religious give more across the board, not only to religious causes but to non-religious charities as well.
- Charity isn’t just a rich man’s activity: The working poor give a greater proportion of their income than the middle or upper classes.
- Americans give far more money and volunteer much more frequently than Europeans.
- Charitable giving fosters not only personal happiness, but economic growth and prosperity.
Who gives in America? About three out of four families give charitable gifts each year. The average amount is $1,800, or 3.5 percent of their income. Brooks finds that the most generous donors have four key traits: religious faith, skepticism about the government in economic life, strong families, and personal entrepreneurism. Where these converge, dollars flow freely toward charitable causes.
If you want to predict giving patterns, first look at a person’s religious convictions. People who worship nearly every week give away three and a half times more money each year than people who only go once or twice a year. For two otherwise identical families earning $49,000 in 2000, the religious one gave $2,210 vs. $642. But religious people don’t just give to their churches and synagogues. They are more likely to give to nonreligious causes as well, whether it’s the PTA or the symphony, and they are twice as likely to volunteer.
Religion trumps politics, when it comes to donor motivation. The faith factor leads 91 percent of religious conservatives to contribute to charity, and nearly as high a percentage of religious liberals do so.
Political orientation is another powerful factor in charitable giving. Conservative households donate 30 percent more money to charity than liberal households, and they are more likely to volunteer as well. Why the difference? Brooks found that liberals view government redistribution as a “form of charity,” which they believe exonerates them from further giving. But it clearly is not the same thing. Charity is voluntary and taxation is not. Liberals can be shamed into giving, however. Presidential candidate Al Gore was embarrassed by the release of his tax return that indicated he had given a meager 0.2 percent of his income to charity. His giving jumped to 6.8 percent the following year.
One of the more ominous findings is the effect of government spending on private organizations, particularly in light of the Bush administration’s efforts to step up government funding to faith-based organizations. Brooks writes that “numerous studies have demonstrated that a dollar in government spending on nonprofit activities displaces up to 50 cents in private giving,” and the “highest level of crowding out occurs in assistance to the poor and other kinds of social welfare services.” That would make the $1.1 billion the administration gave to faith-based groups last year a mixed blessing at best. It might be wiser for the Faith-Based Initiative to use the government’s convening power to connect faith-based groups with private foundations and corporations to fund their programs with private dollars. This strategy would foster long-term strength of faith-based organizations to do the kind of work only they can do. Only the private sector can fund the faith in faith-based organizations—which is what makes them uniquely effective.
The historical precedent of government money displacing private funding is arresting. Take three snapshots at different times in America’s recent history. FDR’s New Deal put a thirty percent dent in church-based charitable giving to the poor in the 1930s. A 1985 study found that cash transfers from state governments to the poor led to less charity in general in those states. And a review of welfare payments from 1997-2002 revealed that higher Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) payments crowded out charitable giving to the poor in the states Brooks examined. The flip side of the argument is that decreases in government spending stimulate charity. “Adversity is the mother of donation,” as one philanthropic expert put it. Based on these findings, one can make the case that government spending can hurt charities—especially faith-based groups serving the poor—in unintended ways.
The continent of Europe has had a longer time to play out the consequences of heavy government spending, including state-subsidized churches. The results have been a near rout for the private sector. Combine centralized liberal policies with a post-Christian culture, and one has the perfect alignment for private inertia. Americans give three and a half times as much as the Dutch to charity, seven times as much as the Germans, and fourteen times as much as the Italians. The contrast indicates that Tocqueville’s America is still alive and well today, and that a part of our unique strength flourishes with private charitable dollars.
Whether or not people give charitably has everything to do with entitlement mentality. In a fascinating comparison, Brooks looks at the giving patterns of the poorest Americans, who are at one extreme or the other, “America the Charitable” and “America the Selfish” writ large. People with the least income to spare either give the highest proportion of their income away—four to five percent—or they give almost nothing. What’s the difference in these two groups? The X factor is whether they receive entitlement payments from the government. The working poor give away three times as much of their money as people on welfare, even though they have exactly the same income. Apparently receiving entitlement payments cripples the impulse to aid others. Brooks concludes “poverty doesn’t make people uncharitable—it’s the government policies for ending it.”
There are a few minor flaws in this otherwise excellent work. Brooks has a hard time explaining the linkage between charity and prosperity. He cites George Gilder’s contention that capitalism and charity are “two branches of the same tree,” stemming from similar motivation and actions. While it is true that charity creates social capital and enriches communities in ways that foster economic development, the reverse logic doesn’t hold. Capitalism can just as easily result in America the Selfish as America the Charitable—as the blue states indicate. The income of liberals is slightly greater than that of conservatives, but they give less. While the numbers show that charity is “associated with” greater prosperity, it is not clear why that is the case. Brooks suggests that charitable giving changes not only the recipient but the one who gives. A virtuous cycle is set into play, with “self-transcendence” accomplishing “self-actualization,” which somehow leads to prosperity.
In his enthusiasm to embrace private charity, Brooks claims it is “a bucket with no leaks,” delivering to the needy more effectively than the government, which leaks with every transaction along the way. But big charities, like big government, are not always reliable vessels. When donations poured into charities in response to 9/11 and Katrina, some like the Red Cross filled their bucket without delivering all of what they received to the victims. A further quibble is with Brooks’ assent that faith-based programs are more expensive to operate than their secular counterparts. Fifteen years of working on the ground with faith-based groups leads me to the opposite conclusion.
These minor points aside, Brooks gives a rousing portrayal of the benefits of private charity that reverberate throughout the nation, increasing the prosperity, health and happiness of Americans. The fruits of charity provide solutions for the stubborn problems that both the right and left want to solve. The evidence indicates that private charitable dollars are more likely to bring about the desired outcomes for the poor without unintended consequences that cripple the recipients.
So what can be done to foster more giving? First off, charity begins at home. Children who are raised in families that teach them the value of charity by participation and example are far more likely to give themselves. In light of the expected $40 trillion transfer of wealth by the middle of the century, the teaching is needed now. Repealing the estate tax would stimulate $750 million per year in new giving by heirs, Brooks calculates. Allowing non-itemizers to deduct their contributions would bolster their gifts as well. And since 91 percent of religious people give to charity, strengthening the link between faith and the amount of their donations could unleash a stronger wave of giving, which could benefit the whole nation profoundly.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.