Monday, December 22, 2008

Who gives?

'Tis the season both for giving and for financial belt-tightening. The juxtaposition of economic recession and holiday gift-giving is interesting, because a number of recent reports are that a lot of us don't give very much in terms of charitable giving of any kind. Christianity Today's December cover story, "Scrooge Lives!" (by one of my authors, Rob Moll), highlights these facts:

More than one out of four American Protestants give away no money at all—"not even a token $5 per year," say sociologists Christian Smith, Michael Emerson, and Patricia Snell in a new study on Christian giving, Passing the Plate (Oxford University Press).

Of all Christian groups, evangelical Protestants score best: only 10 percent give nothing away. Evangelicals tend to be the most generous, but they do not outperform their peers enough to wear a badge of honor. Thirty-six percent report that they give away less than two percent of their income. Only about 27 percent tithe.

"Americans who earn less than $10,000 gave 2.3 percent of their income to religious organizations," Smith, Emerson, and Snell write, "whereas those who earn $70,000 or more gave only 1.2 percent." While the actual percentages are slightly higher for Christians who regularly attend church, the pattern is similar. Households of committed Christians making less than $12,500 per year give away roughly 7 percent of their income, a figure no other income bracket beats until incomes rise above $90,000 (they give away 8.8 percent).

In fact, in absolute terms, the poorest Christians give away more dollars than all but the wealthiest Christians. We see the pattern in recent history as well: When Americans earned less money following the Great Depression, they gave more. When income went up, they began to give less of it away.

And it's not just Christians who are stingy. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof takes liberals to task for not being as generous as conservatives. Some excerpts:
Arthur Brooks, the author of a book on donors to charity, “Who Really Cares,” cites data that households headed by conservatives give 30 percent more to charity than households headed by liberals. A study by Google found an even greater disproportion: average annual contributions reported by conservatives were almost double those of liberals.

The “generosity index” from the Catalogue for Philanthropy typically finds that red states are the most likely to give to nonprofits, while Northeastern states are least likely to do so.

It’s true that religion is the essential reason conservatives give more, and religious liberals are as generous as religious conservatives. Among the stingiest of the stingy are secular conservatives.

According to Google’s figures, if donations to all religious organizations are excluded, liberals give slightly more to charity than conservatives do. But Mr. Brooks says that if measuring by the percentage of income given, conservatives are more generous than liberals even to secular causes.

In any case, if conservative donations often end up building extravagant churches, liberal donations frequently sustain art museums, symphonies, schools and universities that cater to the well-off. (It’s great to support the arts and education, but they’re not the same as charity for the needy. And some research suggests that donations to education actually increase inequality because they go mostly to elite institutions attended by the wealthy.)

Conservatives also appear to be more generous than liberals in nonfinancial ways. People in red states are considerably more likely to volunteer for good causes, and conservatives give blood more often. If liberals and moderates gave blood as often as conservatives, Mr. Brooks said, the American blood supply would increase by 45 percent.

Since I often scold Republicans for being callous in their policies toward the needy, it seems only fair to reproach Democrats for being cheap in their private donations. What I want for Christmas is a healthy competition between left and right to see who actually does more for the neediest.
I was challenged some years ago to give away as much as I spend on myself. I don't do this nearly enough, though I'm trying. This particular Christmas season, I've had this odd feeling that Advent is too long. I got most of my Christmas shopping done early, with weeks to spare. And then, with more time on my hands, I ended up buying additional gifts that I probably didn't need to buy. If Christmas had just been a week or two earlier, I would have saved myself a few bucks. (An additional factor is that my wife's birthday is Jan. 4. So I usually end up getting a bunch of stuff for her, and then decide later which will be for Christmas, her birthday, or Valentine's Day.)

At any rate, I'm sick of Excessmas already - bah, humbug. But I'm glad that Christmas is almost here.


Chip Gorman said...

Interesting book I heard about on the drive home today--"Not Buying It" by Judith Levine. About her and her partner spending a year buying only "necessities." Available at my local library; I think I'll check it out. :-)

One of her comments was that by buying less stuff, she had more money to give away, and she gave away 10X as much as before. She would definitely fit the category of liberals being scolded by Kristof, note. (One of her previous books warned of "The Perils of Protecting Children From Sex" and caused a stir.) So I'm not endorsing it, just saying it sounded interesting.

Al Hsu said...

Chip - I read Levine's Not Buying It a few years ago and blogged about it here. Check out this entry:

Chip Gorman said...

Hey, so you did, thanks! Good review.

On your topic from this post, Levine seemed to imply in the interview that aside from having more money TO give, she had more of an attitude OF giving when she was buying less. That makes sense to me too--if I focus on "getting stuff" then I miss the joy of giving generously. So even as I have more $ and can afford to buy more and still give, I can find my heart cold as I give. Hmmm...

Foggy Blogger said...

The NYtimes ran a story a month or so ago about teens having to work and give up comforts and what not. Afterwards it struck me that christmas has gotten so commercialized in part because parents can't tell their kids no. If you give your kids what the want during the year, how do you top it at Christmas?

As for giving, which is what this post is really about. It seems to me, that its far harder to get people to donate their time, rather than money. We all seem to be on a treadmill/ratrace that keeps us from seeing what/who's around us... Which means less giving overall.