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My experience has taught me repeatedly that the most generous donors are conservative people, or at least people more conservative than I am. They are more conservative politically and religiously. They are mostly Republican. Their political views are almost always at odds with, say, those of the clergy of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the social and political pronouncements of its national body, known as the General Assembly.
Against this background I read a new book, Who Really Cares? The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism, further and more helpfully subtitled America’s Charity Divide: Who Gives, Who Doesn’t, and Why It Matters (Basic Books, 2006).The author, Arthur C. Brooks, is professor of public administration at Syracuse University’s School of Citizenship and Public Affairs and the author of numerous articles and books on topics relating to charity and public life. His articles appear frequently in the Wall Street Journal and other publications.
Like me, Brooks is a liberal Democrat. He set out to answer one of the most intriguing questions about American philanthropy: Who gives? Who really cares enough to donate money, time, and material? He assumed that he would find that the people who gave generously were people like himself–people who were liberal Democrats and who advocate political solutions to the plight of people that suffer disadvantages because of their race, economic status, and/or gender. Instead, he found the opposite. The most generous people in the United States are those who are profoundly suspicious of the ability and desirability of using the state to ameliorate social inequality and see it as their duty and responsibility to help those less fortunate than they are.
Brooks succinctly summarizes his research with the following scenario: “Imagine two people,” he says. “One goes to church every week and strongly rejects the idea that it is the government’s responsibility to redistribute income between people who have a lot of money and people who don’t. The other person never attends a house of worship and strongly believes that the government should reduce income differences. Knowing only these things, the data tell us that the first person will be roughly twice as likely as the second to give money to charities in a given year, and will give away more than one hundred times as much money per year (as well as fifty times more to explicitly nonreligious causes).
“Or,” he continues, “take two other people who are identical with respect to their household incomes, education, age, sex, and race. One receives assistance from the government in the form of housing support, welfare payments, or food stamps; does not belong to a house of worship; and is a single parent. The second is a working poor person (although his or her total household income is just as low as the first person’s, he or she does not receive government assistance), belongs to a house of worship, and is a married parent. According to the data, the second person will be, on average, more than seven times as likely to make a donation to charity each year” (10-11, italics in the original).
It is crucial to emphasize one point about Brooks’s research. He is not interested in studying the motives for charitable giving, though some of his research sheds light on the intriguing question of why people give. It is counter-intuitive, after all. Why give something away when you could hold on to it? Instead, Brooks is interested in studying why different groups of people give and why they give differently.
Charity in America is huge. Three out of four families make charitable donations each year. That represents 225 million Americans, and most of these do not itemize their deductions and therefore receive no charitable gift deductions on their income tax. The average amount donated is 3.5 percent of household income or $1,800. About a third of that goes to religious institutions. Two thirds is given to secular causes–education, health, and social welfare. The most recent annual total is $250 billion each year, and two-thirds of it comes from individuals, not foundations, corporations, or bequests. In short, philanthropy in America exceeds the entire annual gross domestic product of Sweden, Norway, or Denmark.
And giving isn’t declining or at a plateau. It’s increasing. For the last fifty years, charitable gifts have ranged between 1.5 and 2 percent of the gross domestic product, and average giving per household has nearly tripled in inflationadjusted dollars over the last half century. It’s not only money. More than half of American families volunteer their time each year, and the rate of volunteerism will likely increase with the retirement of the baby-boom generation. Roughly forty percent of volunteer time goes to religious causes, thirty percent to youth-related organizations; the rest goes to poverty-related causes, health charities, and political activism (3-4).
It has always been this way in America. Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous commentator on American culture, observed in 1835: “Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations.” With astonishment, he wrote, “The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries [by which he meant schools], to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they found hospitals, prisons, and schools” (Democracy in America, II/2/V). As historian Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., so aptly put it, Americans are “a nation of joiners.”
The result has been remarkable, an amazing and ever growing number of “associations” designed to meet various social and religious purposes. In 1940 there were 15,000 non-profit organizations; today there are 1,500,000. In Louisville alone, there are more than 600 so-called “special events” each year–charity balls, banquets, golf outings, runs, and walks. The number of non-profit groups grows annually. Last September I attended the awards ceremony of the Honorable Order of Kentucky Colonels. This event focused only on the Louisville recipients of generosity from the Kentucky Colonels; there were many more organizations throughout the Commonwealth that benefited. I was surprised and inspired at the range of causes represented at the meeting, agencies aimed at helping everyone from visually impaired preschool children to the homeless alcoholics and addicts whom we serve at The Healing Place.
A parenthetical word here: Some people perceive the proliferation of non-profits as a problem. They bemoan what they call “the competition for the charitable dollar.” This is hogwash. In my opinion and my experience, competition is good for non-profits. It encourages them to focus their messages and stimulates creativity and ingenuity. Furthermore, the so-called charitable dollar is always increasing. The explosion of wealth in America over the last twenty five years, if not since World War II, is absolutely unprecedented in human history. From my observation, nothing is worse for a non-profit organization than too much money or too much endowment. I’ve seen its corrosive effects on educational institutions and on other organizations. Consider, for example, the plight of the national Red Cross when it was deluged with nearly half a billion dollars after the tsunami devastation in 2004 and with $2 billion donated in one month to the victims of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The charitable pie is always increasing. There are always more organizations in the food line. So be it. There is always more food. And may all be fed.
The fact remains that American philanthropy is perhaps the most distinctive feature of American culture. It has no parallel in Europe, our closest counterpart, and definitely none in Japan or Asia, Latin America, or Africa. Americans are a nation of givers, and they donate their money, their possessions, their time, and their blood at rates far beyond those in any other country of the world. How did this happen?
The answer, as Brooks and others have made clear, lies in two factors: culture and religion. Both were forged in the crucible of nation-building during the early nineteenth century and still shape American life in the early twenty-first century.
The “state,” so called, was a weak and fragile instrument in early American culture. For example, the justices of the United States Supreme Court traveled various circuits during the early 1800s to adjudicate cases. Aggrieved parties didn’t appeal to Washington; the court came to them. There was no national income tax and therefore no reliable and highly productive means of income for the federal government until 1913. Law enforcement was feeble and episodic. The Wild West was actually the Wild Nation. Criminal behavior was both public and private and largely uncontrolled. One little-noticed feature of the feminist movement in America has been its origins in the temperance effort. Women, who with their children were the primary victims of drunken behavior, banded together to combat the effects of alcohol in the early nineteenth century, and through their common opposition found common bonds about their status as unequal citizens. In short, faced with a weak state Americans created a vibrant culture of associations dependent not upon public income but private beneficence.
The second factor is religion. At the birth of the American republic, the religious institutions were primarily churches, and nearly all of them were Protestant. Only five percent of the American people were Catholic, and less than one per cent were Jewish. In fact, there were so few Jews in colonial America that genealogists have been able to identify virtually all of them by name.
These Protestant churches were ambivalent about whether they should seek state recognition and sponsorship, as had been the case in Europe. Some, like the Episcopalians, sought to reproduce the patterns of England. The Presbyterians, as always, were divided among themselves. Others, such as the Baptists, Quakers, and early Methodists, saw the state as an enemy of true religion that would only manipulate the truth and corrupt their purity.
Once energized by the phenomenon of revivals and evangelical fervor and enlivened by schism and dissent, these churches faced the obvious: they had to compete to win the hearts and minds of the American people. They did, and they succeeded. The saga of American religion since the War of Independence is the story of the massive extension of church membership–from less than ten percent of the population in 1790 to about sixty percent today. It is also the story of religious groups that played a major role in organizing and taming the unruly culture of nineteenth-century America. The result has been the creation of a nonprofit culture inspired and supported by private benevolence for the creation of public virtue and social welfare. This socalled private sector lives alongside the public sector today and exists in tension with the state.
Not surprisingly, each sector has its supporters, as Brooks’s research demonstrates. The major factors that determine one’s membership are religion and culture. If you are religious and have some kind of family, you are likely to be a donor of money, time, or material. If you are not religious and have no close family associations or ties, you are not likely to be a donor. Religion and family are the two most powerful engines driving American philanthropy, and religion is the most important.
One of the most telling illustrations in Brooks’s book comes from a comparison of South Dakota and San Francisco. Families in both areas donate the same amount to charity each year: $1,300. At first glance, it seems weird. South Dakotans are half as likely to have a college degree as San Franciscans, and of course they are dispersed over an area 1,615 times larger. San Franciscan families make seventy eight times more than South Dakota families. South Dakota families therefore give seventy five percent more of their family income to charity than San Franciscans. Why?
The head of the South Dakota Community Foundation summed it up quickly: “We were all taught to tithe here.” Even those who aren’t involved in a church, she said, were probably taught to give by their parents. The head of a major San Francisco foundation ruefully agreed: “This is a pretty godless place. People don’t feel obligated to give” (32).
Of course, there is a crowning irony here. American religious organizations teach people to give and thereby encourage support for nonprofit organizations that compete with them. But as I say, competition is good. In his book Brooks includes extensive appendices supporting his conclusions and explores more implications of his findings. He emerges as a chastened liberal Democrat who believes in the urgency of addressing the problems of poverty and inequality but keenly aware of the powerful role that private philanthropy plays in American culture and in the American economy. Indeed, he argues that governmental policy should do more to stimulate charitable giving rather than suppress it, and government should be far less intrusive on charitable activity than it already is. The story of his trying to adopt a Chinese infant is a classic instance in the expensive and obstructive barriers erected by government in the name of social welfare.
In sum, Brooks has discovered that conservative, religious, family-oriented people are more likely to donate their resources to the poor and to improve the welfare of society than liberal, non-religious people who do not have close family ties. The liberals call upon the state to achieve noble social goals; the conservatives do it like the little Red Hen–by themselves.
Brooks wisely argues that both groups should recognize their common goals and see each other as complements, rather than competitors. Philanthropy is good for America, he argues, and it is good for Americans. Donors are, by and large, happier people than non-donors, his research suggests. But perhaps the most compelling and eloquent statement about responsible living and citizenship comes not from an American social scientist but an itinerant Hebrew prophet centuries ago. His name was Micah, and he declared,
“[God] has showed you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8).
In short, we would all be better off if we realized anew that we should care for others because God cares for us.