Who really cares?

Kai Ryssdal Dec 12, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: The Salvation Army bell ringers showed up outside my supermarket a week or so ago. A gentle tug on the heart strings asking for help for the less fortunate. Not everybody tosses their spare change in the kettle. But overall Americans are the most generous people in the world. Charitable giving in this country is equal to 1.7 percent of gross domestic product. More than $200 billion. The World Bank compares that to seven tenths percent of GDP in the U.K. Most of it comes in small amounts. Individual donors are the primary supporters of U.S. charities. They typically make about 80 percent of all charitable donations. But who’s doing the giving might surprise you. Arthur Brooks at Syracuse University is out with a new book called Who Really Cares. Professor Brooks, welcome to the program.

BROOKS: Thanks for having me, it’s great to be here.

RYSSDAL:I’ll go right to the heart of the issue, I guess: the subtitle of this book is called “The Surprising Truth About Conpassionate Conservatism”—and I’m not really sure which is more surprising, that it’s a surprising truth or that you found something interesting about compassionate conservatism.

BROOKS: For me, it was a surprising truth. And the reason for that is I was under the stereotype about charitible giving in America, which is that those who are most charitiable are the people who say that they care the most about the needy in America—and that typically involves the political left. And what I found when I started doing analysis on this some years ago was that actually the opposite is true: that political conservatives, or at least declared political conservatives, give more of their resources, even proportionate to their incomes, than liberals do.

RYSSDAL: There’re a lot of data points in there to parce, obviously, but let’s start maybe with a more fundamental question, which is why does it happen this way?

BROOKS: There’s nothing that makes you inherently virtuous just by being a conservative or a liberal, but it has to do with our cultural elements that underly these world views. For example, if there’s only one question I can ask you about your personal behaviour that’s gonna predict, more than anything else, your likelihood of giving to charity or not giving to charity, it’s gonna be about your religious behaviour and religious views. Now, this doesn’t necessarily only mean you go to church every week on Sunday. But if I can say something about your seriousness about religion, I can say an awful lot about your charitable giving—and not just to religious causes.

RYSSDAL:Alright, religion’s the big one. What about some of the others? Income, for example.

BROOKS: Income is another counter-intuitive area. One of the things that we typically find is that people will believe that the rich give the most, or most likely to give the biggest percentage of their incomes, they give more than the middle class, the middle class gives more than the poor, but that’s false. When you look at charitable giving as a percentage of income, which is to say the sacrifice that people make, the most charitable people in America today are the working poor. They give substantially more than any other income class, and in a very real moral sense, if we want to learn about charity we need to look at people of modest means in this country. They have a lot to teach all of us.

RYSSDAL: Does government spending drive out those charitible dollars?

BROOKS: It does. One of the things that we find is when we pay for private social welfare services at the government level, that each dollar we spend displaces somewhere between 25 and 50 cents of private giving to those kinds of causes. Now, what that essentially means is not that these causes lose money—they don’t get nearly as much as they think they do. And this is a dangerous thing to do for a lot of reasons. The first reason is that private charitable giving, on average, is a far more stable source of income for charities and causes than is government funding—particularly the state level. The second reason is that charitiable giving is, is—it’s abundantly clear that it’s so good for individuals and their communities. We find that individuals in their communities after they give, and after they increase their giving, they get stronger—they have better prosperity, higher quality of life indexes, even better public health—and what that suggests is that displacing private charitable giving with government programs has a huge unintended cost.

RYSSDAL: Certainly you’ve drawn some very large conclusions here. Do you find yourself more hopeful now or a little bit distressed? Because certainly you’ve drawn some very large conclusions here.

BROOKS: I have. But I will emphasize that there’s nothing in the historical study of charity that suggests that there’s any destiny about the things that I’m talking about. There’s no reason that religious people have to have a particular political affiliation—on the contrary, we can look at different periods of time in American history where American progressives were both the most charitable and the most likely to advocate for more government income redistribution. So I think that through public policy and greater public awareness, that people of all religious views and politcal stripes can coalesce around this big American value and we can all give more.

RYSSDAL:“Who Really Cares?” is the latest book from Arthur Brooks. He’s a professor of public policy at Syracuse University. Professor Brooks, thanks a lot for your time.

BROOKS: Thanks for having me.

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