tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Monday, April 23, 2007

A look at charitable giving

Arthur Brooks, a professor at Syracuse University, was in Minneapolis last week to deliver a luncheon presentation on his recently published book, “Who Really Cares; America’s Charity Divide.” I had read the relatively short book earlier and was delighted to get a chance to hear the author explain his research into charitable giving trends.

I can’t think about charitable giving for very long without coming up with a lot of questions of my own. Who should I give to? How much should I give? Is it better to give more to fewer charities or less to more charities? Should I give to hopeless causes, like Sam Brownback’s presidential campaign? Should I give to umbrella organizations like the United Way or the Archbishop’s Annual Appeal, even if some of the recipient organizations under those appeals offend me? Do I need to tithe? If so, do I figure my giving total according to my gross income or my after-tax income?

Brooks doesn’t go after any of these questions. He looks at who gives and aligns that data with political affiliation. His conclusion: conservatives give more money to charity than liberals. It is an interesting conclusion given the stereotype that conservatives are cold-hearted individualists while liberals are bleeding heart do-gooders.

I would have thought that the most obvious difference between those who give to charity and those who do not, is income. I assumed that low income people give infrequently and high income people give often. Turns out income has very little to do with it. Ideology is a much better predictor of whether a person gives to charity. It turns out a low income conservative is more likely to donate to charity than a high income liberal.

Brooks said there is a segment of the liberal population that believes charity is bad; people in this group don’t give anything at all. Their thinking is that the more people give to charity, the more they are letting the government off the hook for the things it should be doing. These folks want to see broad taxation, with the money used to raise the standard of living for everyone in the country to a comfortable level. This is a prevailing idea Europe.

Brooks posed this statement: “The government should do more to assure income equality in this country.” He said that the more people agreed with this statement, the less likely they were to give to charity. The more people disagreed with this statement, the more likely they were to give to charity. As I thought about it, I realized that his findings are consisted with my own experience.

I have been in discussions with liberals about a particular social problem. We will all agree that it is a problem. These kinds of discussions generally lead me to think that I need to pull out my checkbook and donate some money to help out. Or I end up thinking I need to organize a group of neighbors and undertake a solution to the problem. My liberal friends, on the other hand, always think the government needs to do something. They usually conclude (before trying) that the challenge is too great for ordinary people to tackle on their own.

A few years ago in my neighborhood, a lot of people displayed a yard sign that says “Happy to pay for a better Minnesota.” It is a sign in support of tax increases. A debate over the appropriate level of taxation is always healthy, but I do think it is worth clarifying that taxation and charitable giving are completely different. People give to charity on a voluntary basis. People pay their taxes under the threat of incarceration. If homeless people need shelter, is it better for that shelter to be provided by tax dollars or by charitable dollars? That’s an interesting debate.

By speaking and writing this book, Brooks really wants to get a public policy discussion going about the role of charity in a society. He thinks, for example, that the tax benefits of charitably giving should be made available to people who don’t itemize. This is a valid social trade-off, Brooks said, because people who regularly donate are more engaged in their communities, are more informed, and tend to take leadership roles in neighborhood activities. This kind of social engagement, he said, is what strengthens societies, so charitable giving should be encouraged, he argues.

Does being conservative make a person more charitable? Brooks says no. He said it is really a matter of religious conviction. People who are involved in their church tend to be the most charitable, and those people are more likely to be conservative. The biggest givers, he said, typically, had the example of parents who gave regulatory, attended a house of worship, and got into the habit of giving at an early age.


Cathy_of_Alex said...

Tom: Interesting post. My response to those "Happy to Pay for a Better Minnesota" signs was always: "Great, there is nothing stopping you from writing a check!" But, they don't want to do that, they want all of us to pay via higher taxes. My taxes are high enough.

Tara Fabulous said...

nice post I love supporting my personal charities. I just came across a great site where i can support a charity of my choice by purchasing necassary items that i need on a daily bases. is the site i came across. Another reason i like this site is because i can support my charities with out signing checks. Also i don't have to do those timely golf outing and those weekly rode races with six kids that are involved in sports i don't have the time, but i still want to donate to my charities. I love

maygan said...

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