WHO REALLY CARES – America’s Charity Divide Who Gives, Who Doesn’t, and Why It Matters by Arthur C. Brooks, Basic Books, New York, 250 pp, $26 © 2006, by Arthur Brooks, ISBN-13: 978-0-465-00821-6

Review by Del Meyer, MD

“Now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three;” said the Apostle Paul, “but the greatest of these is charity."

When I served on the stewardship committee of my parish, which was responsible for obtaining every member’s pledge, I noted that there were large differences in pledges. In using estimates of occupational incomes, it appeared that several members pledged a tithe, a few in the 12 to 15 percent category, while most fell in the three, four or five percent categories. It also seemed that the giving percentages were higher for the poorer members of our parish.

Although the congregation thrived on the large givers, we remember the widow’s mite in Jerusalem that was looked on with favor by our Lord since it was all she had. On the other hand, we don’t know whether the million dollar yearly contributor to Grace Cathedral in San Francisco will be looked upon with favor; e.g. does he only make 10 million per year or less and is giving 10 percent or more, or is the million dollars only a pittance of his total income.

The prevailing opinion in many political circles is that the conservatives are not compassionate. The pre-elections income tax filings by our wealthy lawmakers were also very enlightening. The charitable giving of some of our rich senators seem to calculate out at about one or two percent of their listed income. But they seemed to be generous in raising taxes to make everyone “charitable.” Thus, only liberals view themselves as truly compassionate.

Reader's Digest published a poll several years ago on what Americans thought would be an appropriate maximum tax rate. The prevailing opinion, as I recall, was that all taxes should never add up to more than 25 percent of their income. Meanwhile the marginal tax rate is approaching 50 percent and the rich senators and representatives want to further increase it—to make America more compassionate.

Now comes Arthur C Brooks with the documented truth about liberals and conservatives and his detailed analysis of the charity divide. He found the reverse was actually the truth. Being a liberal, he had difficulty accepting the results of his own research. America’s working poor are, relative to their income, far more generous than their liberal counterparts including the middle class and rich. Not so surprising, the nonworking poor—those on public assistance instead of earning low wages—give at lower levels than any other group. In other words, poverty does not discourage charity in America, but welfare does. 

 In 2004, former president Jimmy Carter claimed that Americans are indifferent to suffering around the world—we don’t really care. Brooks cites a foreign businessman who comes to this country to become better informed about giving and volunteering because many foreigners admire the philanthropic zeal of Americans and consider it the secret of our success.

Another famous foreign visitor to America some 170 years ago was Alexis de Tocqueville. When he came to the United States in 1835, he found a spirit of voluntarism and charity unlike anything he had encountered before. In his classic book Democracy in America, Tocqueville marveled at America’s many civic associations, which were supported through voluntary gifts of time and money: “Americans of all ages, all conditions, and all dispositions constantly form associations,” Tocqueville reported. “The Americans make associations to give entertainments, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this many found hospitals, prisons, and schools.”

Who is correct about American charity—Alexis de Tocqueville or Jimmy Carter? To a certain extent, they’re both right, according to Brooks. When it comes to charity, America is two nations—one charitable, and the other uncharitable. Most Americans are generous, compassionate people. However, there is also an identifiable slice of the population that does not donate to people in need, does not volunteer, does not give in formal ways, and does not even feel compassion toward others.

Brooks states his book is about these two Americas and the reason they behave so differently. In the process of investigating the forces of charity and selfishness, he uncovered some hard truths about American culture, politics and economics. But the stakes are higher than showing a few surprising truths. It matters a lot that we are two nations. Charity, he feels, is essential to our health and happiness, community vitality, national prosperity, and even to our ability to govern ourselves as a free people.  America’s greatest glory lies ahead—if we become more charitable. But just as America, the Charitable spills abundance onto the rest of us, America the Selfish threatens our prosperity as a nation through the policies it supports and the culture it encourages. It is important to understand what makes people charitable and what makes them uncharitable. Our strength as a nation is affected by our ability to bring more people into the ranks of the generous—for their good and for ours.

Fortunately, Tocqueville’s America is bigger than Jimmy Carter’s. There are far more charitable Americans than uncharitable ones. Approximate three out of four families make charitable donations each year. The average amount given by these families is $1800 or about 3.5 percent of household income. About a third goes to religious activities and the rest goes to education, health and social welfare. Charitable donations in the United States add up to about quarter trillion dollars per year.

American charity doesn’t stop with money. More than half of American families volunteer their time each year.

Brooks cites statistics that belie the selfishness of our nation even though one-third is not charitable. Although 225 million Americans give away money each year, the other 75 million never gave to any causes, charities or churches. Furthermore, 130 million Americans never volunteer their time.

Brooks found that among Americans with above-average incomes who do not give charitably, a majority of them say that they ‘don’t have enough money.’ Meanwhile, the working poor in America give a larger percentage of their incomes to charity than any other income group. People who give money charitably are 43 percent more likely to say they are “very happy” than non-givers and 25 percent more likely than non-givers to say their health is excellent or very good.

Liberal families earned an average of 6 percent more per year than conservative families, but conservative families gave more than liberal families within every income class, from poor to middle class to rich. Despite their lower earnings, conservative households in America donate 30 percent more money to charity each year than liberal households.

Also, a religious person is 57 percent more likely than a secularist to help a homeless person. If liberals gave blood like conservatives do, the blood supply in the U.S. would jump by about 45 percent.

If we look at party affiliation instead of ideology, the story remains largely the same. These results are not an artifact of close elections in key states. The average percentage of household income donated to charity in each state tracked closely with the percentage of the popular vote it gave to Mr. Bush. Among the states in which 60 percent or more voted for Bush, the average portion of income donated to charity was 3.5 percent. For states giving Mr. Bush less than 40 percent of the vote, the average was 1.9 percent. The average amount given per household from the five states combined that gave Mr. Bush the highest vote percentages in 2003 was 25 percent more than that donated by the average household in the five northeastern states that gave Bush his lowest vote percentages; and the households in these liberal-leaning states earned, on average, 38 percent more than those in the five conservative states. People living in conservative states also volunteer more than people in liberal states.

Givers are also more sympathetic and tolerant than nongivers. Data from 2002 tell us that givers express less negative prejudice than nongivers toward African Americans, whites, Latinos, and Asians. They are also more sympathetic to Protestants, Jews, Christian fundamentalists and Catholics. Givers are more favorably disposed to everybody than are nongivers. The only two exceptions are political liberals and the news media.

The political stereotypes break down even further when we consider age: “Anyone who is not a socialist before age thirty has no heart, but anyone who is still a socialist after thirty has no head,” goes the old saying. But young liberals—perhaps the most vocally dissatisfied political constituency in America today—are one of the least generous demographic groups out there. The electoral map and the charity map are remarkably similar. The most charitable states voted for Bush, and the least charitable states voted for Kerry.

Sanctimonious yard signs do not prove that the bearers are charitable or that their opponents are selfish. “Government charities” is a misnomer because it is forced—not charitable. It is not a voluntary sacrifice by individuals. No matter how beneficial or humane it might be, no matter how necessary it is for providing public services, it is still the obligatory redistribution of tax revenues. Bureaucrats feel we should help the poor—with other peoples’ money. Brooks has confirmed what Mohammed Yunus, the Novel Laureate this year, has stated, you cannot eliminate poverty with handouts.

In Who Really Cares, Brooks demonstrates conclusively that conservatives really are compassionate - far more compassionate than liberals. Strong families, church attendance, earned income (as opposed to state-subsidized income), and the belief that individuals, not government, offer the best solution to social ills - all of these factors determine how likely one is to give. Charity matters - not just to the givers and to the recipients, but to the nation as a whole.