It Turns Out Conservatives Really Are Compassionate

Arthur C. Brooks, a professor at Syracuse University whose work involves public policy and philanthropy, has written a new book called Who Really Cares: America’s Charity Divide: Who Gives, Who Doesn’t, and Why It Matters. His boldface conclusion? As summarized in this interesting article, Brooks found that “religious conservatives donate far more money than secular liberals to all sorts of charitable activities, irrespective of income.”

President and Mrs. George W. Bush certainly did their part. According to their 2005 tax return, the Bushes had taxable income of $618,694 and contributed $75,560 to charitable organizations that included the American Red Cross (Hurricane 2005 Relief), the Salvation Army (Hurricane 2005 Relief), the Salvation Army (Pakistan Earthquake Relief), Martha’s Table, the Archdiocese of New Orleans Catholic Charities, the Mississippi Food Network, and the Federal Government’s Combined Federal Campaign.

(Hat tip: Chad Erickson)


brit

Regarding church, I have to wonder to what extent the act of having an offering plate passed in front of you increases charitable giving. I know if I went to church, and had an offering plate passed in front of me every week, my charitable giving would probably increase as well (out of opportunity, guilt, and suggestion). Much of my charitable giving ends up being based off of some sort of "trigger" - someone asking for change, a tsunami in southeast asia, etc. (Although, I was also giving money to help people with their heating and electricity bills.) Most of the time, charitable giving is more like "out of sight, out of mind". An offering plate each week would act as a weekly trigger to remind me of charitable giving. This "trigger" idea does complicate some of the analysis. Assuming I am no more or less willing to be generous whether I go to church, if I define "generous" as "willingness to give when the opportunity arises", then an offering plate does nothing. But, because we measure "generousness" in terms of actual donations, then the presence or absence of "triggers" plays a huge role. People who are confronted by triggers less often will be measured as being less generous, regardless of their actual attitude towards giving. This "trigger" factor could explain some gap between generosity of church-going and non-church-going people.

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BigDaddyP

Since this is about economics, how about you discuss how tax deductible donations are really paid for by all taxpayers, not just those that are donating. How about we talk about how everyone in this country is paying the bill to have huge churches built. By making the donations deductible, you lower the income of the country and that has to be made up by everyone. I'll leave the details to the experts.

phashemi

Would be interesting to see more detail than the article gives. In graduate school, I worked at an institute that researched giving and volunteering, and learned that something like 50% of US charitable giving (according to the IRS) goes to churches; and while SOME of that is undoubtedly going to help the poor, etc., much of it is of a different nature entirely than true charity. In some ways, it's more analogous to a tax (some of which ALSO goes to helping the poor!) - the question is really whether you trust the institutions of state or religion to handle that money, and obviously religious conservatives and secular liberals answer that question differently. If Brooks' findings haven't controlled for religious giving, this reads as a cynical bid for big shocking headlines... but if he has (and I imagine he has), then it'll be a really interesting read.

Isaac

Looks like somebody didn't read the article. It was controlled for tithing and church giving. Even if you eliminate that, the conservatives and Christians STILL give more.

Anyway, a church, in most cases, is a net positive for a community. Church attendence is the leading factor preventing urban youth from breaking the law. Churches are clearinghouses for all manner of assistance to the poor. And church volunteers are less prone to corruption or bungling of funds.

How much government assistance goes to pimps and drug dealers who qualify because they don't document their income? Do you think a church would pull an ACORN and set up a child sex trader with tax funding?

rico_suave

I'm not sure cutting a check qualifies as compassion. Especially when other motivations could be fitting in with a group (church), a tax deduction, or with the knowledge your tax returns will be scrutinized (our president).

Has anyone ever been with a conservative who passes a homeless man on the street. It's not a pretty sight. Bottom line is that it's easy to play a role in your church where everybody looks and talks just like you. Taking that attitude out into the real world is a different story.

wesleyb41

The hat tip for this blog goes to a friend of mine here in TN. We discussed this over dinner one night and figured it was a political ideology thing.

I seem to recall that when Gore and Bush were in the 2000 race, the tax returns for each were released for 2000 in 2001. Gore had given 6.2% of his AGI. G. W. Bush gave 19.3% of his AGI.

Kudos Chad, kudos.

Paddy

I probably shouldn't second guess Bush's charitable heart, but I would bet money (then I would donate it to charity) that Bush had an advisor tell him to donate money to certain charities for perception purposes. I guess I'm just cynical. Charity is charity, however. Incidentally, all of the charities Bush donated to are excellent organizations.

xanadu

Yes, he must control for religious giving. Aside from the red cross, there are very few non-religious charities, especially at a local level. Such a scarcity makes it much harder to find suitable recipients for one's donations.

Also, a family that goes to worship every week gets reminded to donate every week. They are exposed to more advertisements for that product, thus they are more likely to buy the product.

g_man

You should read the article. It is not just writing the check, they are also more generous with their time.

rico_suave

I did read the article and the giving of time is even more suspect.

Maybe this is because I don't believe there is such a thing as charity. We do the things we do and make the decisions we make to fulfill our needs as people and not anyone elses.

It's like voting. We do it because we want to be perceived as someone who has done it. I'm sure the same thing applies to blood drives etc. and certainly it's easier to participate in such activities when it's sponsored by a strong social group such as a church.

zbicyclist

Many charitable donations are self-serving in some way. Other posters have noted that donations to churches result in direct benefits to the donor, such as being able to look at beautiful stained glass windows made possible by church donations.

That's also true of many other donations. Did Stephen Ross just happen to donate all that money to the University of Michigan, and did they just happen to name the business school after him? Or are many large donations basically converting money into name recognition?

Other donations may reflect particular causes that may reflect individual political desires -- I'm thinking, for example, of Planned Parenthood, the Sierra Club, Amnesty International, The Chicagoland Bicycle Federation, the Chicago Botanic Garden [and many other groups -- I'm just throwing stones at my own favorites]. Some of these groups have to separate their charitable contributions (deductible) from their political ones (nondeductible), but there's gray area.

I used to give to the United Way when the company had organized campaigns and my department head had to make a certain number of personal appeals to those who hadn't pledged. Was this a contribution or hush money?

Hush money pretty much describes giving money to beggars on the street -- a somewhat amazing example of charity used by other commenters. How do you think they use much of that money? By giving to beggars on the street, you are most likely encouraging substance abuse AND, by encouraging begging, creating problems for the local merchants on that block. Some charity!

My point is this: if we take a hard look at our own contributions, we realize that we benefit in some way from nearly all of them. Why single out donations to churches as impure?

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brit

Stephen:
President and Mrs. George W. Bush certainly did their part. According to their 2005 tax return, the Bushes had taxable income of $618,694 and contributed $75,560 to charitable organizations that included the American Red Cross (Hurricane 2005 Relief), the Salvation Army (Hurricane 2005 Relief), the Salvation Army (Pakistan Earthquake Relief), Martha's Table, the Archdiocese of New Orleans Catholic Charities, the Mississippi Food Network, and the Federal Government's Combined Federal Campaign.

Since we're discussing giving to churches, let's not forget that the link you provided listed "churches" as part of that $75,560:
President and Mrs. Bush contributed $75,560 to churches and charitable organizations, including the American Red Cross, ...

From the Article:
Conversely, secular liberals who believe fervently in government entitlement programs give far less to charity. They want everyone's tax dollars to support charitable causes and are reluctant to write checks to those causes, even when governments don't provide them with enough money.

I thought the pervasive use of the phrase "government entitlement programs" was meant to bias the reader against government programs. Anyway, I wasnt' quite sure how to take this sentence. It implies that liberals are more generous because they support increases in governmental aid to the poor, but implies that liberals are less generous because they don't unilaterally write the checks. A truely selfish person would oppose both government programs (let me keep all my money) and would refuse to give money unilaterally (let me keep all my money). It's almost like liberals do support charity, but only through a "dollar-matching" system known as government spending.

zbicyclist:
Hush money pretty much describes giving money to beggars on the street—a somewhat amazing example of charity used by other commenters. How do you think they use much of that money? By giving to beggars on the street, you are most likely encouraging substance abuse AND, by encouraging begging, creating problems for the local merchants on that block. Some charity!

And, at the same time, it contradicts your earlier point that, "Many charitable donations are self-serving in some way." We may disagree with how the beggars use this money, but I wouldn't agree that that type of giving is "self-serving in some way." BTW, I don't understand your use of the phrase "hush money" in this context.

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phashemi

zbicyclist,

Although I disagree with your characterization of what I wrote - "singling out donations to churches as impure" - I think donations to religious organizations really do need to be considered differently from those of other organizations where the donor receives, at best, indirect benefit, for two specific reasons:

1) Their sheer size. I don't know how accurate my 50% number is - I think I last saw the figure in 2001 or 2002 - but it is my understanding that the number is remarkably consistent over time, within 5-10% of that. It seems to be a fairly large elephant in the room if you are making the case (as is being made in this article, notably from the _Religion News Service_) that religious people give more to charity than non-religious people. I may be cynical, but it's hard to imagine that the Religion News Service would be covering this story if the conclusion had been the other way around.

2) Their activities. Churches spend most of their money (I would hope) tending to their parishioners' spiritual needs. This is well and good and noble, but ultimately the vast bulk of the benefits accrue to the parishioners. I'm sure commenters here can comment on similar situations that do receive similar tax-exempt status, but it's rarely considered "charitable giving" in a tax reporting, which is where most philanthropy research gets its data. For example, tuition-payers receive most of the benefits of a college education, and their spending is not considered charity; but alumni donors' spending is, probably because they don't receive most of the benefit (although having your name on a building or getting your underachieving kid into school are definitely exceptions to this).

As I mentioned, I suspect that he has controlled for the religious giving and am curious to see the research... but I'm also a little suspicious because the title seems designed to grab headlines and stir up controversy.

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Duffman

"Grumble Grumble Liberals this...Whine whine conservatives that." Believe what you want, and give to whatever organizations you believe in. Do so with humility. I think this concept tends to get overlooked in a society focused of trumping ones personal achievements. Donations given with the intent of placing oneself on a pedestal above another are inherently selfish, and selfishness is the antithesis of charity.

phashemi

One other thing: It's hard NOT to believe there's some kind of agenda behind statements like this (Brooks, quoted in the article):

"For too long, liberals have been claiming they are the most virtuous members of American society. Although they usually give less to charity, they have nevertheless lambasted conservatives for their callousness in the face of social injustice."

Really? I certainly hope that he cites studies of self-described "liberals" claiming that they are the "most virtuous members of society". Otherwise, this might just be seen as grandstanding.

snubgodtoh

I didn't read the article because it sound like a heap.
Gotta agree with Duffman, it's always nice to hear of anonymous donations.
Also agree that church tithes are monies spent on (intangible) goods and services where the consumer expects robust future returns (pearly gates) to his or her present investment. In that sense, is it not possible that voting to increase government spending (thru taxes) for societal gain is every bit as if not more charitable? I didn't get my name published in an article the last time I voted for increased funding to public schools in my area.

scott cunningham

That members of "conservative" churches give more is not surprising, as it seems consistent with Laurence Iannaccone's modeling of congregational religion. In his 1992 JPE paper Sacrifice and Stigma: Reducing Free-riding in Cults, Communes, and Other Collectives, Iannaccone shows that congregational religion has certain club good properties making it more susceptible to free riding. Membership in "strict" churches usually requires extensive sacrifices - both monetary and otherwise - that, in turn, feed back into raising the utility of members since sacrifices and stigmas keep free-riders out, and also serve to raise the utility of the members (in Iannaccone's model that is). I suspect some of what is being picked up is related to the fact that the givers are a part of congregational "strict" churches.

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Brian S.

Jim Lindgren at the Volokhs thinks the books has some significant problems (and he's no liberal):

http://volokh.com/archives/archive_2006_11_19-2006_11_25.shtml#1164012942

Judith_S

I'd like to see Brooks' data, not just because of the church-charity gap, but also because the tone of his article very clearly indicates his bias for the conservative side. For example, who got credit for the $37 billion that Warren Buffet donated? How about Bill Gates' donations? Soros' contributions?

Mr. Brooks is also with the American Enterprise Institute, so clearly has an axe to grind. The Statistics link from his web page provides nothing.

sophist

Why so vulnerable? Why try so hard to find ways to explain that conservatives' charitable giving just doesn't count?

Brooks no doubt is biased, but that doesn't mean the rest of us have to be.

zbicyclist

Brit takes me to task:
"And, at the same time, it contradicts your earlier point that, “Many charitable donations are self-serving in some way.” We may disagree with how the beggars use this money, but I wouldn't agree that that type of giving is “self-serving in some way.” BTW, I don't understand your use of the phrase “hush money” in this context."

My point is very simple. Most people give money to beggars on the street just to shut them up -- and because of the implicit threat they feel when approached by beggars. Hence, hush money. Hence, self-serving. Hence, no contradiction.

If people really wanted to give to beggars on the street, they would walk out of their way to go down streets they frequent. Exactly the opposite is the case.

Just to plug a favorite cause, anybody who wants to help put food into the homeless / working poor could cook a weekend meal OR send a check to the Marquard Center in Chicago. http://www.franoutreach.org/mc.htm This is a place I personally volunteer at. I feel it does a good job. Places like this actually provide food to the poor, not money to buy alcohol and drugs. While operated by Franciscan Outreach, it's lightly religious -- at least two Orthodox and one Jewish congregation provide support.

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