Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The charitable divide

There are two recent posts on charitable giving that touch on each other tangentially. Michael at "Postcards From Myself" has a post entitled The politics of Altruism that explores different types of giving, and The Naked Theologian has a post entitled How good are we without God? exploring who does the giving. TNT writes about a new book by Robert Brooks about the difference in giving between liberals and conservatives. “When I started doing research on charity,” Mr. Brooks wrote, “I expected to find that political liberals — who, I believed, genuinely cared more about others than conservatives did — would turn out to be the most privately charitable people. So when my early findings led me to the opposite conclusion, I assumed I had made some sort of technical error. I re-ran analyses. I got new data. Nothing worked. In the end, I had no option but to change my views.”

Although liberals advocate on behalf of those who are hungry and homeless, Brooks’ data shows that conservative households give 30% more to charity. A Google poll puts these numbers even higher—at nearly 50% more. Conservatives even beat out liberals when it comes to nonfinancial contributions. People in the conservative states in the center of the country are more likely to volunteer and to give blood."

Actually neither TNT nor Mr. Brooks should have been surprised; if you Google "red state blue state charitable giving" you'll find research showing these results going back ten years- much of the research done by the charitable organizations on the receiving end of the giving. But TNT doesn't explore why. Conservatives believe it's because liberals are hypocrites; liberals find it inexplicable, because they know they genuinely care more about others than conservatives. I believe that the explanation- both of the giving, and of the views liberals and conservatives hold about each other- lies in the different types of giving described in "The politics of Altruism" being viewed through different ideological lenses.

Liberals believe much more in what Michael calls "the second method" than conservatives do. This is philanthropy by proxy, spending your time and/or money on organizations and programs that will do the charitable work, rather than doing it personally. And of course the ultimate in programs is the government; liberals believe in government programs and push them heavily. Since conservatives generally oppose these programs, liberals believe they don't care.

Conservatives tend to believe in the first method- direct, personal giving and doing. Secular conservatives believe in this method because they don't trust the government to do a good job, and fear political strings on their charity. Religious conservatives give directly because all facets of spiritual work are their personal responsibility, not a collective one- souls are saved retail, not wholesale. So no matter how many government charities a politician may set up, if he doesn't give personally he's not really giving- he must be a hypocrite.

The truth is that both care, and neither are hypocrites. And there are lessons both can take away- conservatives need to learn that there are some government programs worthy of supporting, and Joe Biden might consider giving more than seven-tenths of one percent of his income in charity (to use the example from TNT). But the most important thing for both of them to learn is to look a little deeper into their opponent's arguments, learn why they do the things they do, and stop demonizing one another.


David Throop said...

One-on-one helping transforms the giver in a way that indirect helping does not. When I have worked on a crisis hotline, served meals at a homeless shelter, visited someone in jail – in these acts of charity I have myself been transformed.

I have never been transformed by paying taxes to support Section 8 housing, or even in kicking in a fat check at my church to support the Grameen bank.

Joel Monka said...

Good point, David. I note that the NFL requires players to do a certain amount of in-person community work, just for good will- and many players find that having tried it, they love it, and make it a big part of their lives. There are now player-name foundations, youth groups, and charities all over the country.

Diggitt said...

I'm with David -- and so are UU leaders, psychologists, and other students of the human heart.

For the last 25 years, volunteers from Westchester County, New York have traveled into NYC to spend the night hours on the street with the unsheltered homeless, taking food, clothing, and -- most importantly -- themselves. Thousands of people from at least 150 congregations, schools, and community groups participate in the Midnight Run.

As a generation of volunteers have cycled through, the school kids especially know that they are changed by the Run. "The most important thing we take is ourselves," one of our youth group members told me 20 years ago. He was right.

Over the years, Jane Brody and Perri Klass, both MDs who write for the NY Times, have done several articles on the mental health benefits of volunteering and giving. Many young reporters, new to the city, write sooner or later how surprised they are to see poor people on the subway giving to other poor people. They are learning (by watching) that giving is not a function of what you have but of who you are.

The U.S. tax code is written to favor impersonal giving of large sums. If you write a check, you get a tax break. If you give hours you cannot deduct their value. You cannot deduct making five gallons of soup, unless you keep track of the costs of all the items in it. If you drive miles to do good, you can deduct the cost of those miles for pennies. When I read about the mental health value of giving, I know there's a difference between hands-on volunteering and sitting on a committee to plan a charity ball. Unfortunately, for its own survival any grass-roots group has to find the deep-pocketed board sitters and party planners more urgently than the folks who want to get their hands dirty.

Strange Attractor said...

Out of curiosity, how much do the numbers change when you take out donations to churches? Could the emphasis of conservative Christian churches on tithing be an additional and complimentary explanation?

That said, I like your argument, Joel.

Joel Monka said...

Strange Attractor- yes, tithing has an effect, but on The Naked Theologian, it says "According to Google’s figures, if donations to religious organizations are excluded, the total amount liberals give to charity is slightly higher than that given by conservatives. But according to Mr. Brooks, if the contributed amount is tied to percentage of income, then conservatives are more generous than liberals—even to secular causes. Ouch.

Joel Monka said...

Diggit- yes, there are many UU congregations that do wonderful hands-on work. But if the UUA leadership has any programs for hands-on work, like classes and booklets on how to set up soup kitchens or pantries or shelters as other churches have, they sure don't advertise it very well. All I ever see is programs for emailing my congressman, or contributing to a fund of some kind.

ogre said...

This all boils down to an argument that seems to be answered best with "both."

The advantage of giving in groups is leverage and perhaps the benefit of creating "cascade"--getting others to give, too.

The benefit of giving directly, personally, is very real--and personal.

Both are real, meaningful and valuable.

I also suspect that there's an effect on some liberals of reacting *against* their past. I've seen people, who have wounds and scars from their religious upbringing in conservative faiths, walk out when they heard the word "tithe." I will admit I'm kind of baffled by that myself--but I don't have those wounds! (Others simply DIDN'T grow up in a context where the idea of giving generously was normative--it's going to have to be learned, as an adult...).

I've avoided the word. I've preached it... explaining how I went from giving probably no more than 1% to giving more than 10%, and how I've found that rewarding, personally.

Tom said...

Arthur Brooks' book defines four categories of people: religious conservatives, secular conservatives, religious liberals and secular liberals. Religious liberals are just as generous as religious conservatives. Secular folks, liberal and conservative, are considerably more stingy.

That is, church attendance makes people more generous. This is hardly surprising since almost all churches preach the value of generosity and provide plenty of opportunities for giving and volunteering.

The fact that liberals are stingier than conservatives can be entirely explained by their lower rates of church attendance.