Americans are a profoundly charitable people. No other developed country even comes close. Americans, per capita, give seven times more than the Germans, 14 times more than the Italians, and volunteer more time on average than anyone else. Moreover, donations during this season of giving are expected to surpass their pre-recession record levels, despite the continuously precarious economic situation.
But what makes Americans unique in their level of giving? According to Arthur Brooks, author of “Who Really Cares,” the strongest corollary of someone’s philanthropic behavior is religiosity. Religious people are four times more likely to give than non-religious people, and donations to churches alone do not explain the difference. Those who profess religious faith are also “more likely to give to every kind of cause and charity, including explicitly non-religious charities.”
Clearly, then, religiosity goes far in explaining the gap between Americans and everyone else. The U.S. stands out in its high levels of religious practice compared to other developed countries. Yet there is another factor that plays a big part in charitable behavior, which has to do with a person’s beliefs about the role of government.
The oft told narrative is that liberals care more about the well-being of the poor than conservatives do. Only a few weeks ago in a conversation with a self-described “progressive” friend of mine, he put forth the notion that perhaps what conservatives were lacking was simply empathy for those less fortunate. It turns out that this portrayal of the two opposing world views has no actual bearing in reality.
In 2006, the ABC show “20/20” decided to examine two locations which epitomized the conservative/liberal dichotomy and find out who actually gives more. Using the Salvation Army donations as a measurement they chose a Wal-Mart in Sioux Falls, S.D. and a Macy’s in San Francisco, CA. as their samples. Residents of San Francisco, on average, earn twice as much as those living in Sioux Falls, and the Macy’s there attracted roughly three times as many customers as the Wal-Mart did. Nevertheless, the Salvation Army raised twice as much money in Sioux Falls than they did in San Francisco.
These results are no surprise to those who have studied the data. Brooks points out that people who disagree with the statement, “The government has a basic responsibility to take care of the people who can’t take care of themselves,” are 27 percent more likely to give to charity. Conservative headed families give about 30 percent more and are also 18 percent more likely to donate blood, despite the fact that they make slightly less money.
A good deal of this phenomenon likely has to do with the reality that there are more religiously affiliated conservatives than there are liberals, but there’s more to it than that. If assistance to the poor is seen as a government obligation, then logically people are less likely to take individual action. Helping the poor is no longer seen as a duty.
When Tocqueville came to America in the early 19th century, long before there was government welfare, he was astonished by the willingness of Americans to band together within their communities to get things done. Unfortunately, that cultural characteristic has been fading away since the progressive-era began in the 20th century. Increasingly people are expecting more and more out of their governments, but the government does not provide services to the needy as effectively as private charities do.
Take the San Diego refugee resettlement programs in the 1990s, for example. Those who went through the Catholic Charities gained employment sooner, had fewer problems in gaining access to agency personnel, and attained higher education levels compared to those who went through the County’s Department of Social Services.
But the efficacy of private charities is only a side benefit. There’s no virtue in forcing your wealthy neighbor give more of their annual income to government. People who really care about the poor give their own time and money away.
When Jesus saw rich men donating gifts at the temple, He also saw a poor widow give two copper coins, and said, “Truly I say to you that this poor widow has put in more than all; for all these out of their abundance have put in offerings for God, but she out of her poverty put in all the livelihood that she had” (Luke 21:1-4).
This Christmas season we should hearken back to those American of old and reaffirm our duty to charity by helping our neighbors in need.