A new book appears to show that religious folks, mostly conservatives, are more charitable than secular liberal types -- until you look closely at the numbers
Take that, self-satisfied liberals! A central trope in liberal political discourse is that conservatives are selfish guardians of their own wealth and privilege. But according to "Who Really Cares," a new book by the Syracuse University public-policy specialist Arthur C. Brooks, it is liberals (especially the nonreligious sort), not conservatives, who are less likely to open their wallets to make charitable donations.
Consider two people, Brooks suggests in his book: One goes to church every week and believes it's not the government's job to reduce the amount of inequality in America. The other doesn't attend church and believes the government must rectify economic injustice. Similar in every other way, which of these people gives more to charity?
The churchgoer, Brooks concludes, is twice as likely to give money. What's more, she will give 100 times as much. And not just to her house of worship: She will give 50 times more to nonreligious charities, too. Brooks's book is filled with statistics like these. It "really obliterates the stereotypes about who is philanthropic," says Peter Schuck, a professor at Yale Law School, who read the book in manuscript.
If we want to improve America's already impressive record of charitable giving -- as much as $250 billion annually, including an average of $1,800 per family, a figure that dwarfs that of any other country -- one important step would be "to work for cultural change on the secular left," Brooks said last week at a forum on the book at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
"Who Really Cares" is creating a stir in philanthropy circles -- and garnering acclaim from conservative pundits like ABC News's John Stossel and the radio host Michael Medved -- but is it to be trusted? At the AEI forum, Alan Abramson, director of the philanthropy program of the Aspen Institute, said that one should treat Brooks's sweeping conclusions with caution, given the "softness of the data" on charity in general. (He noted that Brooks himself concedes that we don't even know with certainty whether 50 percent or 80 percent of adult Americans donate to charity.)
Other scholars, like Paul Schervish, a sociologist and head of the Center on Wealth and Philanthropy at Boston College, express doubts about the claims, though he found them hard to check on short notice. "One thing he does do," Schervish says in an interview, "is to go to different data sets depending on what he wants to be proving." Among other sources, Brooks uses IRS data, the University of Michigan's General Social Survey, and surveys conducted by the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.
Though it's a thumb in the eye to smug liberals, the book, Brooks insists, isn't really about partisan politics, but rather the "values" underpinning charitable giving. In his telling, no driver of charity compares with religion. "Religious people are more likely to give to every single kind of charity than the nonreligious," he said at AEI. "It's the single strongest claim I can make."
Ninety-one percent of people who attend a house of worship weekly donate to charity, he finds, compared with 71 percent of non-observers. Even when it comes to nonreligious giving, the observers come out ahead, with 66 percent giving, compared with 61 percent for secular types. (Evidence Brooks isn't in the tank for the Republican Party, he says: He finds that secular conservatives are even bigger skinflints than secular liberals. They're just a smaller group.)
At the AEI session, the Aspen Institute's Abramson said that Brooks failed to note that much charitable giving in the "religious" category goes toward things "that don't have a whole lot to do with compassion or helping people in need," including ministers' salaries, church upkeep, and Sunday School. In a sense these donations are like membership dues. Set aside gifts to one's own temple, church, or mosque, Abramson added, and "I'm not sure there's a heck of a lot there," in terms of variations among different groups. (Of course, some giving to houses of worship clearly does end up being used for charity.)
Brooks, however, says the finding that religious citizens are generous citizens is robust. But that's not all. Another important factor spurring charitable giving is one's attitude toward the redistribution of income. Citing the 1996 edition of the General Social Survey, Brooks finds that the 30 percent of Americans who think the government should do little or nothing about economic inequality gave away, on average, four times more of their income than the 43 percent who said the government should do something.
Jim Lindgren, a professor at Northwestern University's law school, has observed the same correlation between charitable giving and attitudes toward redistribution (and explicated it in an unpublished paper). But last month, on the blog The Volokh Conspiracy, he cautioned that that finding does not translate directly into a charity gap between "conservatives" and "liberals."
According to Brooks's data, Lindgren points out, self-described liberals and self-described conservatives -- who together represent 70 percent of the population -- were in fact equally likely to give time and money. But conservatives gave $1,600 while liberals gave only $1,230, a substantial difference. Lindgren, however, cautioned that the latter finding is based entirely on a single data set involving 3,000 respondents in 41 communities nationwide, which might not be sufficiently representative. (In fact, Lindgren observes that moderates often give less than either liberals or conservatives.)
Brooks's red state-blue state comparisons are also drawing scrutiny. He triumphantly points out that of the 25 states that give the most per capita to charity, 24 went for President Bush in the 2004 election. And in a striking passage, he observes that residents of both San Francisco and South Dakota donate about $1,300 per family to charity, even though the average San Franciscan family makes $80,000, while the average South Dakotan family makes $45,000.
Why the difference? Brooks quotes the "director of a major San Franciscan foundation" as suggesting that "this a pretty godless place."
But John Havens, associate director of Boston College's Center on Wealth and Philanthropy, points out that once you correct for cost of living, the San Franciscan family earns only 15 percent more than the South Dakotan. Indeed, in the Boston College center's ranking of states by personal generosity -- a ranking that corrects for cost of living and tax burden -- blue states do fine: Of the top five states, four -- New York, California, Connecticut, and Maryland -- are blue.
Brooks's book should keep scholars busy for quite a while, given its wealth of empirical claims. If a state spends 10 percent more on welfare, for example, does that really cause charity in that state to go down by 3 percent? Jon Gruber, an economist at MIT, suspects that overstates the impact of state spending by "two orders of magnitude."
And can it really be, as Brooks says, that charitable givers are the most tolerant people in America, expressing warm feelings toward every "minority" group in the land -- including union members, feminists, and homosexuals -- if charitable givers are also disproportionately right-wing?
Brooks says he hopes the book serves as a "rallying cry," encouraging secular Americans to build a new culture of philanthropy. But, as one person -- a conservative -- asked at the AEI forum: Can you encourage selflessness by calling someone stingy?
Christopher Shea's column appears biweekly in Ideas. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Correction: Because of reporting errors, the Critical Faculties column ("Who gives") in the Dec. 10 Ideas section misstated two figures cited in the book "Who Really Cares" by Arthur C. Brooks. According to the book, of those citizens who attend worship services irregularly or not at all, 66 percent give to charity, not 71 percent as the article stated. In addition, the book states that 71 percent of weekly worshi pers give to nonreligious charities, not 66 percent, as the article said. Also, the Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey, on which the book's author draws, is based on local samples in 42 communities, collectively totaling 26,200 individuals, plus a national sample of 3,000 -- not on just 3,000 residents in those 42 communities.)