The Great Divide in American Giving

The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 9, Issue 1, December 2006

Arthur C. Brooks1

‘Tis the season to give. Our mailboxes are filling with appeals from fine organizations and worthy causes, competing for our holiday spirit and tax-deductible dollars. Millions of Americans will answer the call, donating in December as much as a third of the quarter-trillion dollars we give away each year. Per capita, Americans give more in this single month than most nations give all year long.

Before congratulating ourselves too heartily, however, we should note that charity is not a virtue shared by all. While 85 million American households give away money each year to nonprofit organizations, another 30 million do not. And this distinction goes beyond “formal” giving. Recent survey data reveal that people who fail to donate money to charities are only a third as likely as donors to give money to friends and strangers. Non-donors are half as likely as donors to give blood. They even are less honest: non-donors are much less likely than donors to return change mistakenly given to them by a cashier. When it comes to charity, we are two nations.

Why does Giving America behave so differently from Non-Giving America? The answer, contrary to what you might be thinking, is not income; America’s working poor give away at least as large a percentage of their incomes as the rich, and a lot more than the middle class. The charity gap is driven not by economics but by values.

Nowhere is the divide in values more on display than in religion, the frontline in our so-called “culture war.” And the relationship between religion and charity is nothing short of extraordinary. The Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey indicates that Americans who weekly attend a house of worship are 25 percentage points more likely to give than people who go to church rarely or never. These religious folks also give nearly four times more dollars per year than secularists, on average, and volunteer more than twice as frequently.

It is not the case that these enormous differences are due simply to religious people giving to their churches. Religious people are more charitable with all sorts of nonreligious causes as well. They are 10 percentage points likelier than secularists to give money to explicitly nonreligious charities like the United Way, and 25 points more likely to volunteer for secular groups such as the PTA. Churchgoers were far likelier in 2001 to give to 9/11-related causes. On average, people of faith give more than 50 percent more money each year to non-church social welfare organizations than secularists do.

A second core value affecting charity shows up in the belief citizens have about the government’s role in their lives. Some Americans (about a third) believe the government should do more to reduce income differences between the rich and poor – largely through higher taxation and social spending. Others (about 40 percent) do not favor greater forced income redistribution. This is a major difference in worldview – not just about taxation, but also about the perceived duty of individuals to take personal responsibility for themselves and others. This difference affects people’s likelihood of voluntarily giving to charity. The General Social Survey shows that people who oppose government income redistribution donate four times as much money each year as do redistribution supporters.

Note that the charity gap is not due to anything the government is actually doing; rather, to what people think the government should be doing – in other words, nothing more than a political opinion. This fact throws a wrench into the traditional stereotype that conservatives in America are hardhearted while liberals are the compassionate ones. In the words of one common 2004 campaign yard sign in my town, “Bush Must Go! Human need, not corporate greed.” However, the General Social Survey indicates that people who opine that government is “spending too little money on welfare” – not a viewpoint typically associated with George W. Bush’s supposedly venal supporters – are less likely to give food or money to a homeless person than people who oppose greater welfare spending. Regardless of which view on welfare is superior, ask yourself this: who will personally do more for a poor person today?

A third key value affecting charity is reflected in family life. Couples, even when they earn the same amount as single people, are more likely to give to charity, and the simple act of raising children appears to stimulate giving as well – children help us fill the collection plate even as they drain our wallets. Further, family life is the ideal transmission mechanism for charitable values: data show that people who see their parents behave charitably are far likelier to be charitable themselves as adults.

As you probably noticed, the values predicting private charity in America tend to smile on the political right. Conservatives are twice as likely as liberals to attend a house of worship regularly; conservatives are one third as likely as liberals to say the government should “do more” to reduce income inequality; conservatives also have about 40 percent more children than liberals. Furthermore, there is a fringe on today’s political left that goes beyond simple neglect of charity, and openly condemns it, claiming that it lets governments off the hook from having to pay for services. So while there may be nothing inherently charitable about political conservatism, today’s conservatives do outperform liberals on most measures of private giving.

What does this mean in the wake of the Democratic takeover of Congress? Will the new Democratic majority look for ways to protect and expand private giving? Or will the majority allow cultural forces to manifest themselves in policies uncongenial to private giving – such as punitive regulation of private foundations, expanded public subsidies to nonprofits that squeeze out charity, and various schemes that lower disposable income among major givers?

But an even greater moral test is personal, not political. Left or right, secular or religious, single or married, the cultural forces of giving and non-giving are not destiny for any of us. Private charity is a choice: a choice to express our values in a private and singularly humane way. This is worth remembering as we hold requests for charitable support in our hands this month – and make the right choice.


1 Arthur C. Brooks, a professor at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Public Affairs, is the author of Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism (Basic Books). Copyright 2006 by Arthur C. Brooks.