Charitable Giving: What the Studies, Numbers, and Statistics Say

9 years ago

Pronunciation: 'cher-&-tE, 'cha-r&-
(Function: noun; Etymology: Middle English charite, from Anglo-French charité, from Late Latin caritat-, caritas Christian love, from Latin, dearness, from carus dear; akin to Old Irish carae friend, Sanskrit kAma love) 1 : benevolent goodwill toward or love of humanity; 2 a : generosity and helpfulness especially toward the needy or suffering; also : aid given to those in need b : an institution engaged in relief of the poor c : public provision for the relief of the needy; 3 a : a gift for public benevolent purposes b : an institution (as a hospital) founded by such a gift 4 : lenient judgment of others

- Merriam-Webster Online

Charity appears to be an uncontroversial word with clear meaning. Yet in his book, Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism, Arthur C. Brooks very nicely illustrates how context, data manipulation, and value judgments completely change the meaning of this word. Using ten sets of data from a variety of sources, Mr. Brooks concluded that Democrats, i.e. - secular liberals – are misers, scrooges, and hoarders who like to talk about economic justice, but are unwilling to put our money where our mouths are.

In order to arrive at that conclusion, however, he needed to make the data fit his biased premise: “Government spending is not charity.” Thus, although Merriam Webster’s would argue otherwise, government itself does not provide charity through social programs universally supported by taxes. Brooks maintains that paying taxes to support charity cannot be considered charity, even if some are willing to pay higher taxes to promote charitable outcomes, because taxes are compulsory. Only voluntary acts can be considered charity, which is an insanely narrow premise. Further, government should have no role promoting economic justice. He has no evidence that a completely private charity market actually addresses these issues better (in fact, evidence indicates that historically, societies without some form of government benevolence tend to have rampant and incurable poverty), yet he’s determined to prove that secular and liberal people are cold-hearted, uncharitable rich folk content to fiddle while the poor suffer. Since the data he presents in his book does not support this conclusion, Brooks does some fancy mixing and matching of facts and language to make his case.

His three main arguments - that religious people are more generous than secular people; that liberals are misers and unhappy people because of it; and that the government should have a very limited role, if any, in redistributing wealth and promoting social justice because it should be handled by the private charitable marketplace - taken together, support his narrowly defined thesis on what is charity and who is charitable, but logically, they can not be combined unless one is purposely trying to spin what the evidence shows. Grouping them together it is like comparing a banana to an apple to a kumquat.

“Religious People are More Generous than Nonreligious People”

This statement, depending on how “charity” is defined, is the only empirically true statement that Brooks makes. However, all the data presented indicates that most of the donations counted, fall under a loosely defined category, “religious causes” (aka “religious organizations”). Since the activities of these categories are not spelled out, there is no way to fully assess whether the contributions benefit a narrow religious purpose, such as rebuilding a church parish house, or a broader social benefit, like a soup kitchen run by a church in its basement. It is also unclear, then, how much religion is intertwined with the activity. Are people at the soup kitchen given a Bible lecture while they eat, or are they merely given food and left to their own reflections? Brooks maintains that this does not actually matter because “charity depends on behavior, not motive.”

According to data culled from the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey (SCCBS), conducted by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research, people who are religious do give more to charity than those who are not.

Table 1: Are religious people more generous than secular people?

People who attend their house of worship nearly every week or more often People who attend a house of worship less than a few times per year, or have no religion
% giving $ to charity 91 66
% volunteering 67 44
Value of charitable gifts $2,210 $642
No. of occasions volunteered
% giving $ to secular charities
% volunteering for secular causes
Value of charitable gifts to secular charities
Source: SCCBS (presented as Table 5 in Brooks book)

However, note that the average total amount that religious people contribute is $2,210 per year. Thus $1,678 – the vast bulk – is to religion.

The Arts and Religion Survey (ARS), done by Princeton professor Robert Wuthnow and Gallop Poll, Provides another “no duh” revelation:

Table 2: Is there a difference in the types of giving between religious and secular people?
% giving money to all charities % giving $ to religious causes % giving $ to nonreligious causes
All people 75 64 50
People who belong to a house of worship 88 86 53
People who do not belong to a house of worship 56 32 45
People who attend their house of worship every week 92 92 51
People who never attend a house of worship 42 13 37
Source: ARS (Excerpt of Table 20 in Brooks’s book)

The more involved with religion one is, the more likely they are to give to religious causes. About half of both categories give to secular causes. Again, the biggest difference is in religious giving, not general giving.

Yet, the SCCBS data in Table 1 shows that people who are not religious also gave in large numbers. Yes, this is less than that of religious people, both in percentage of the defined population who donate to charity and in the total gift; however comparing the types of gifts of both groups is a baseline to judge overall. SCCBS reports that nonreligious liberals donate only $65 less per year to secular causes than religious conservatives. When one compares apples to apples, the difference between religious and nonreligious donors in comparable causes is minor.

Regression analysis further illustrates the effect that religious donations have on an overall image of generosity. The secular variable in the regression is -$761.311, meaning that a person who is not religious will give $761 less than a person who is religious. Again, that makes sense because nonreligious people do not give large gifts to religious organizations.

The only real difference, when you factor out religious causes, is in the total number of hours volunteered by religious and nonreligious people. Religious people spend more hours volunteering at “nonreligious” causes than do secular people. On the other hand, one can note that many volunteer opportunities rise through churches, even if they are secular, such as signing up as a group to paint a school or clean up a park. Other volunteer opportunities often mix a religious component into an otherwise secular volunteer opportunity, such as building a home through Habitat for Humanity (self-described as an “ecumenical Christian housing ministry” on its website) or feeding the homeless at soup kitchens in church basements. Hence people attending church are presented with the convenience of opportunities at arms length, whereas nonreligious people must seek out opportunities which may not exist or present themselves.

Does giving money to one’s church or a charity affiliated with one’s religious denomination (the bulk of religious’ givers donations), really count as goodwill to fellowmen? Again, it depends how one defines “goodwill.” Who benefits from such donations? Are “fellowmen” people in one’s community or a broader, more general populace? If “fellowmen” are other members of your church, they will clearly enjoy improvements to a religious building or extra pastoral counseling enabled by such donations. That it has no impact on those outside of one’s narrowly defined community has no meaning to Mr. Brooks. Good has been done, although it may not have benefited anyone other than the donor and his ilk. Remember, it is the behavior that counts, not the outcome.

“Conservatives are usually more generous than liberals”

This theory is patently false, unsupported by any of the data in the book. Brooks argues that conservatives donate 30% more of their incomes to “charity” than liberal households, although liberal households earn slightly more on average. Brooks also claims that religious/conservative people donate an average of 54% more per year than secular/liberal people to human welfare causes. The problems with these claims are that the actual data he presents does not provide any support for these assertions, and that the definition of “human welfare causes” is too vague.

Again, reviewing the data that Brooks’s uses from the SCCBS illustrates that religious people are on the whole more generous than secular people, regardless of whether they are conservative or liberal.

Table 3: How are liberals not charitable based on this data?
Religious Secular
Annually Conservative Liberal Conservative Liberal
% of population 19.1 6.4 7.3 10.5
% giving money to charity 91 91 63 72
Avg. value of charitable gifts $2,367 $2,123 $661 $741
% giving money to religious causes 88 86 34 22
% giving money to nonreligious causes 71 72 55 69
% volunteering 67 67 37 52
Avg. number of occasions volunteered 11.9 12.6 4.7 7.2
% volunteering for religious causes 62 60 35 51
% volunteering for nonreligious causes 60 63 31 47
Source: SCCBS (Table 7 in Brooks’s book)

However, secular liberals give in higher percentages than secular conservatives (72% v. 63%) and give more cash overall $741 v. $661. This is a small difference, but it contradicts Brooks statement that conservatives are more generous than liberals.

Further, the gifts of secular conservatives are more often going to religious causes that likely benefit a specific sector (religious) of society. On the other hand, more secular liberals give to nonreligious causes than secular conservatives do. Data clearly indicates that secular liberals also volunteer more, and more frequently, for nonreligious causes than do secular conservatives.

Again, regression analysis done with this data shows that there are other variables that impact the size of a gift more than liberalism. As educational attainment increases, so does giving: people who attended graduate school give $1,314 more than those who did not. So here we have another prime example of the generosity of liberals trumping that of conservatives.

Hence, if religious liberals and religious conservatives are equally generous with their time and money, as the data indicates, and liberal secularists are considerably more generous than conservative secularists, it follows that liberals are, in fact, far more generous than conservatives overall.

Since he is unable to use straight data to show that liberals are less charitable than conservatives, Brooks’ next methodology is to compare the percentage of earned income donated by ideological background. Mr. Brooks maps out charitable giving and argues that conservative communities (red areas) contribute more to “charity” than liberal communities (blue areas). However, according to his own map, blue areas are mostly in metropolitan areas with high costs of living. People inhabiting those areas may earn more, but have less income from which they can donate without risking basic needs like food and shelter. For example, a secretary with a gross income of $25,000 a year in New York City likely spends half of her income on rent alone. She also must pay city taxes, in addition to high state taxes, leaving her with little discretionary income. A person with the same job in rural Arkansas may be paid only $18,000, but with rent at less than a quarter of his income, lower state taxes (if any at all), and likely no municipal taxes, he has more money to comfortably donate to the charity of his choice. The appropriate analysis, then, should not be to look at what people earn, but to compare apples to apples and examine what percentage of their discretionary income is given to charity.

Brooks looks at giving across several income brackets. He automatically assumes that people receiving welfare are liberal and launches his attack. Data from the Panel Study on Income Dynamics (PSID), conducted by the University of Indiana, does indicate that people who have never received welfare gave more time and money than people who received welfare in 2001. People who received welfare in 2001, but not in 2003 (or vice versa), gave the next largest amounts, and people on welfare in 2001 and 2003 gave the least, although not dramatically less than the prior two categories, the conclusion being that people with any welfare history are likely to give less. Since Brooks assumes that these people are liberal (an inaccurate assumption by any means), his claim illustrates that liberals give less of a percentage of their income than conservatives.

His claim makes sense, not from a political standpoint, but from a practical one. Since welfare recipients are also in the most precarious financial situations and most likely to need aid, they are also likely to have less cash income than working poor families, and thus what they do donate is thus a higher percentage of their positive income than that of working families. In theory, welfare recipients also have more time to volunteer because they do not work. But when one factors in that a large percentage of long term welfare recipients have young children at home, or health, mental health, drug, and/or alcohol issues that prevent them from participating in the workforce, it is understandable why they do not participate in volunteer activities as actively as the working poor.

In fact, pesky data from the SCCBS shows that while low income people give the least amount of money to charity, donations are generally inversely proportional to the percentage of income earned, i.e. – the richer one gets, the lower the percentage of income one gives. Although the size of gift increases as income rises (until you get to over $100,000), the percentage that the gift comprises is still lower than the percentage given from those making under $20,000 a year.

Also, the richer one gets, the more likely one is to give to nonreligious causes.

Table 4: Income and charitable giving
Annual household income Avg. value of charitable gifts % giving money to charity % giving money to religious causes % giving money to nonreligious causes Avg. gift as percentage of income
0-$20,000 $458 64 52 44 4.58
$20,001-$30,000 $710 75 60 56 2.84
$30,001-$50,000 $1,093 84 67 69 2.73
$50,001-$75,000 $1,530 89 72 78 2.45
$75,001-100,000 $2,059 92 73 83 2.34
$101,000 + $3,089 94 74 89 3.09
Source: SCCBS (Table 8 in Brooks’s book)

Again, this shows that donations from the lowest levels are flowing to religious causes, and if liberals do earn more than conservatives, they give a smaller percentage of their income to charity not because they do not give to secular causes in amounts higher than conservatives, but because they feel no need to give to religious organizations tied to causes they do not support.

Government vs. Private Role in Promoting Social Justice and Equity

As if these fact-blurring tactics are not enough, Mr. Brooks further muddies the waters by layering in his bias against using government to promote social and economic equality. He repeatedly quotes Ralph Nader’s 2000 Presidential campaign comment that “A society that has more justice is a society that needs less charity,” which holds when people’s basic needs and rights are adequately addressed. But Brooks insists that this is emblematic of the tight-fisted liberals’ refusal to redistribute their own bank accounts. Research at his own educational institution betrays the fallacy of this conclusion (unless you agree with his narrowly defined statement of charity, which automatically excludes the willingness to pay higher taxes for charitable outcomes as “generous”).

Table 3: Attitudes about inequality and the role of government
Liberals Conservatives
76% 41% Believe income differences in society today are too large
92 51 We are now a society of haves and have-nots
67 25 Income inequality is a serious problem
80 27 Government should do more to reduce inequality
(Source: Campbell Public Affairs Program, Maxwell School, Syracuse University, Table 24 in Brooks’s book)

Liberals clearly do dole out their income – we are willing to pay higher taxes to have the government offer programs to do the work that Brooks insists can only be done by charity. As a professor at the Maxwell School, it is fair to assume that he has a financial understanding of how big government is possible, and that he also understands that liberals with higher incomes are paying a high share of this cost. If the government is properly doing its job to ensure that all strata of people have the same life opportunities, then there is a need for less charity; the problem is adequately being addressed already.

The above table shows that liberals are logical people who act according to their beliefs. It also indicates that, although secular liberals do not give as much to charity as religious people, we rate very highly on social concerns. However, if one cannot accept as a premise that the government should function as an “institution engaged in relief of the poor” (i.e. – charity), then one would not be able to see that liberals possibly donate even more than conservatives because we are willing to both pay higher taxes for justice and continue to contribute to philanthropic causes.

In fact, Brooks goes so far as to argue that government spending on general human welfare is evil, as it discourages people to give to charity. It seems that paying taxes is not good for people but giving to private charities is, regardless of whether charity actually is a better solution to social problems.

Brooks also conveniently ignores the fact that the government, in many cases, is far more efficient in distributing public goods than the private sector. A good example of this is Medicaid. The government has an extremely slim overhead cost (under 5%) in administering a complex system of health care benefits, whereas HMOs often spend 25% or more on overhead and administration. If Brooks were to have his way, Medicaid would be abolished and somehow the private charitable market would take up the slack, providing the same benefits as Medicaid. Even if this unlikely scenario were to happen, it would require more money to serve the same number of people because the costs would be so much higher. How is this an efficient use of resources?

Donors to charity are not known for merely giving money and letting a charity use it as it sees fit. Often the interests of the donor, while overall wanting to do good, lead to programs that have little effect. If charities spend all their time recruiting individual donors, the outcome is likely to be thousands of redundant and cost-ineffective programs and activities. As is, charities spend too much time letting donors guide their work for every incremental dollar. Reducing government support for charitable work will only lead to further fragmentation and less effective programming. In the end, Brooks would disregard this concern because the act of charity is more important than the motive or outcome, which is ludicrous.

Another tactic used by Brooks to argue that why government has no role in “charity work” is that doing good works makes people happy. He sites SCCBS data that shows that people who give time or money are happier and healthier. The argument is that if government were to drop dead, people would pick up the slack because it is good for them and they will be happier. He writes:

Charitable giving is extremely pleasurable. It not only gives people the power to help others but also makes their lives more meaningful. It also gives them the expressive power to support causes they care about – power the political system cannot provide – and ties them to others who have similar interests and passions. Unlike taxation and redistribution, charity is a personal choice and a voluntary sacrifice, and thus highly empowering. For all these reasons, givers are happier than they would be if they didn’t give, and probably healthier and richer. Donating money gives people one more reason to earn money, so givers naturally work harder and earn more than nongivers. It makes sense that charity should increase our happiness, health, financial well-being, and even – if we give enough – our nation’s GDP.

The General Social Survey (GSS) conducted by the National Opinion Research Center might support this theory, as it indicates that people who are religious are overall nicer and happier. Other data has conclusively shown that religious people donate the most money to charity. For Brooks, this is proof enough that religious people do more good. (Incidentally, Brooks earlier claimed that liberals give less but earn more than conservatives, something that should not work if the hypothesis above were true.)

Yet GSS also provides data to shoot this theory down. In a table used by Brooks on “niceness,” GSS numbers indicate that people who do not give to charity are selfish wretches who don’t help homeless people, give blood, let someone cut ahead in line, give up seats to others in need, or worry about others. Using prior data, we know that religious liberals give in amounts that equal religious conservatives, and that secular liberals give the next highest amount, which leaves secular conservatives giving the least. If secular conservatives are the least likely to give to charity, it is unclear how not paying for social justice through the government is likely to encourage them to help others. They already do not support a government role in social justice nor do they give money to charity. And according to GSS data, they currently feel pretty darn good about themselves anyway, with 36% of conservatives reporting that they are “very happy in life” (in contrast to only 28% of liberals, who do, in fact, give more to charity than conservatives). Where then, is the incentive for secular conservatives to donate?

We have had market-based systems of social and economic justice in the past. While private foundations, settlement houses, and churches provided some aid to a lucky few, they clearly did nothing to address the broader social and legal issues that gave rise to such income and justice disparities in the first place. Government may not be able to solve every problem, but it certainly addresses inequality in a more efficient and fair way than previous attempts. To gut our political system because “people will feel good about themselves” through charity is a straight return to the era of the robber baron.


The conservative media hyped this book for a reason - it ignores the data and convolutes facts to support an ideological argument that bolsters the conservative cause while making liberals look selfish and greedy. Stack this book in the conservative propaganda section of the library, along with Focus on the Family literature and The Bell Curve. Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism is about as fair and balanced as FoxNews.

Alternate reading suggestion:

Charity, Philanthropy, and Civility, edited by Lawrence J. Friedman and Mark D. McGarvey. From the book jacket: “Professional historians address the dominant issues and theories offered to explain the history of American philanthropy and its role in American society. These essays develop and enlighten major themes, oftentimes contesting each other in the process. The overarching premise is that philanthropic activity in America has its roots in the desires of individuals to impose their visions of societal ideals, or conceptions of truth, upon their society. To do so, they organize in groups that frequently define themselves and their group's role in society.” As one reviewer notes, “Its authors also demonstrate that philanthropic activities--however valuable--cannot substitute for collective public action to deal with major social problems."

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