Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Charity vs. Government Responsibility

A National Review piece by Arthur C. Brooks today notes an interesting study result:
In 1996, the General Social Survey asked a large sample of Americans whether they agreed that, “The government has a responsibility to reduce income inequality.” Those who “disagreed strongly” with this statement gave an amazing twelve times more money to charity per year, on average, than those who “agreed strongly.” People disagreeing strongly also gave nine times more to secular causes than those agreeing strongly, and even gave more to traditionally progressive causes, such as the environment and the arts.
He also states (but does not provide a source):
The working poor are America’s most generous givers when we measure giving as a percentage of income. Most studies have shown that the working poor tend to give away between four and five percent of their incomes, on average, while the rich give away between three and four percent. (Both groups give away significantly more than the middle class.)
Now, it makes sense that if one believes strongly that it's the government job to deal with poverty, one would be less inclined to work to solve the problem for them and vise versa. But I was a bit surprised at the degree of difference so I googled around a bit.

I found several other conservative articles which cited exactly the same result, but not the actual source study. The GSS website (which makes their data available) is here, but they don't have any convenient summaries on this question and I don't have time to dig into the question further at the moment. If the result proves consistent (The GSS survey is conducted every 1-2 years) it would be an interesting confirmation of the idea that large institutionalized safety nets tend to discourage people from actively taking care of each other themselves. Since I do believe that our Christian duty to help our neighbors has to do with personal, family and local action rather than the use of the nation state to perform "charity" via taxes and hand-outs, I would have expected such a result. But frankly, the delta in charitable giving is much more than even I would have expected. I don't know if I should suspect it on that basis or take it that I'm even more right than I realized.


M.Z. Forrest said...

The charge to "reduce income inequality" doesn't necessarily imply welfare or charity. As to the more general case, I generally have an issue with what many define as charity. Is donating $12M or so to contruct a basketball arena for a university really charity? Is tithing, a significant portion of reported giving, really charity? I don't know about your parish, but mine spends upwards of 90% of all it collects on such mundane things as salaries, utilities, and things solely intended for the congregants. By the same standard, is insurance just ruthlessly efficient charity? By the same token is Target engaging in charity when it offers 5% of revenues to local charities but has a significant number of employees receiving welfare benefits from the State?

TS said...

One thing my bro-in-law mentioned in connection with Barack Obama's meager pre-2005 charitable giving is that it's possible that he donated his time. Which is true. I don't know whether conservatives/liberals give donate more of their time to charitable efforts.

Anonymous said...

The Blackadder Says:

Brooks has a book Who Really Care? that I believe would provide the data sources and goes into more detail about some of the issues raised by your post. My understanding is that the gap in charitable giving persists even when specifically religious charitable contributions are taken out, and that it varies depending on not simply one's view of income inequality, but of one's views of the welfare state in a variety of contexts.

As for the bit about Target, it's not clear to me why this would not be regarded as charity. Presumably it would still count as charity if the people receiving welfare gave, even though there the money being given does come directly from the state, whereas in the case of Target the connection is rather tenuous.

Darwin said...


Even in the examples you raise, which aren't exactly feeding the hungry and burying the naked, I think there's pretty clearly a difference between the mentality which sees value in voluntarily giving your money to a cause that you consider worthy versus advocating that the government collect money from everyone to achieve the same (or a similar) end.

So for instance, one of the few secular causes towards which our giving occasionally goes is our local classical music station, which is listener supported. Now, when I pledge one or two hundred dollars to them, that money is going to middle class hosts and station operators and to record companies, not to help those in desperate need. In that sense, many might say it's not what we'd normally talk about as "charity".

However, it seems to me that it is still an example of caring for one's neighbor and community to make that kind of donation, while it's much more tenuously so to advocate that the same causes be funded (a la the BBC) via government taxation and spending. The one involved a community relatinship and care for others to which we are called as Christians, and the other doesn't really, though the result may be similar.


Hmmm. I'll have to take a look at that book.

M.Z. said...

Remind me not to be naked around you. ;-)

Data isn't so hard to get. There are some examples that are more difficult, like grandparents funding their grandchildren's education. Even your own example offers its own issues. I think you would agree there is a fundamental difference between donating to the your local classical music station and donating to one in say Green Bay. The latter I think we would agree would be a selfless gift with no real benefit for you. That you receive a benefit for your local radio station, listening pleasure, actually causes you to feel some obligation. And I don't really have an issue with that. I'm just trying to point out that we are in a methodological minefield.

However, it seems to me that it is still an example of caring for one's neighbor and community to make that kind of donation, while it's much more tenuously so to advocate that the same causes be funded (a la the BBC) via government taxation and spending.
I don't see the strict dichotomy. That my taxes cover musicals at our high school or athletics doesn't bother me. The students I think recognize it is a privelege offered by the community. I think the better differentiation would be those goods/benefits that are univerally destined and those goods/benefits that are particular. Personally I find it offensive that my tax dollars buy freeways rather than users paying for them; I might be stoned one day for saying this in the wrong place.

And I think that there is a specific obligation placed upon citizens to pay for those goods that offer universal benefit. This is why I don't see universal health care as an offense against charity. This is also why I don't like the EITC or cash welfare.

Darwin said...

To be clear: It's not so much that I have a strong objection to government funds being used to support things such as museums, symphonies, stadiums, etc. (though in some cases I might) but rather that I think that doing that sort of thing through the government, and especially through large scale government (and our states and antion are both pretty large scale) has a tendency to decrease any real ties that would result from a more direct relationship between giver and recipient.

So for instance, my tax dollars go to support my local public schools, and my donations support my parish, but I feel a sense of personal responsibility to my parish because my relationship with it is direct which I would never have towards my local schools. However, the people I've known who belong to small private or charter schools to which they personally provide significant time or money _do_ have a very strong personal relationship with those institutions.

Brandon said...

This interview with Brooks gives the idea of the book.

Anonymous said...

As to the more general case, I generally have an issue with what many define as charity.

Similar complaints could be leveled at most all of empirical economics, which for all its number crunching is hardly an exact science. Measuring things like wealth and poverty are also difficult in many instances. If it helps (as I noted in the Vox Nova discussion) Brooks claims that conservatives are also more generous regarding matters such as blood donations. That seems like a relatively clean metric. How meaningful it is is another matter.