Do Americans have a great tradition of charitable giving?

“One of the serious obstacles to the improvement of our race is indiscriminate charity.”

Andrew Carnegie


From colonial days to modern times, America has always had a vigorous flip-side to its ethos of self-help and individualism. While the poverty-stricken can’t expect much from the government, private grassroots charities stand ready to lend needy neighbors a helping hand. Mormons have the most explicit financial benchmark - everyone’s expected to ‘tithe’ 10% of his or her income to the Latter Day Saints. But all of America’s well-attended churches provide that weekend nudge, and out pop the wallets and purses.

The Evidence


    Sources: OECD national accounts 1997, Bixby 1997, AAFC, Charities Aid Foundation, Helmut Anheier


  • In 2004 total charitable giving in the U.S. was a whopping $248 billion, of which three-quarters came from individuals (not companies or foundations). This cash supports one and a half million charities. You can’t find a problem in America that doesn’t have at least one charity tackling it.
  • Big though this money sounds, it’s only two and a bit percent of GDP. In other words, Americans are much more generous tippers than they are givers. Moreover, it does little to offset America’s far lower level of government welfare spending than Europe. So the poor end up with less total help.
  • But America’s 2% still puts other rich nations to shame. Brits manage to give about one percent. Germans average just a third of a percent, but many also pay church tax, a kind of forced giving that bumps them to the British level. The stingy French stump up a measly 0.15%.
  • It’s the same story in terms of giving time. Over a quarter of Americans say they’re actively involved in a charity. Compare 5-10% across Western Europe, 2% in Japan and 0.5% in stone-hearted Russia.

A Veneer of Compassion
Charitable giving is a perfect illustration of the American Way. The U.S. has 40 million people mired below the poverty line and a high and rising degree of inequality. Those 1.5 million charities are only a marginal offset to these free market outcomes, but they’re enough to fund lots of bowls of soup and old clothes for people stuck in the gutter. In effect, American charity offers a veneer of religious compassion over the country’s dog-eat-dog economy. 70% of households make donations. This means that almost everyone who can make ends meet shares their leftovers. American generosity isn’t Bill Gates or Andrew Carnegie’s millions. Rather, it’s communities with little to spare but where everyone pitches in anyway.

Want to dig deeper?
charitable fundraising research

7 Comments:

Anonymous GeorgeO said...

Not much of the charity money goes to the poor, actually. Top category is the local church. Next biggest is the alma mater. Together, that's more than half. Poverty-related is less than 10%.

11:27 AM  
Blogger GeorgeO said...

On the other hand, we Americans are known to be generous with our time... and that's not reflected by the (glorious) Goodheadian data.

11:29 AM  
Anonymous Wayne said...

There's a big difference between goverment imposed programs and discretionary giving.

12:47 PM  
Blogger Geezer said...

Isn't the promise and appeal of America not so much that we offer a chance at "equality" but rather "opportunity?"

Those "40 million people mired below the poverty line" include an awful lot who won't be there next year..., because they've earned their way up and out. And will most likely be replaced by another 10 million (mostly illegal immigrants) who want that same chance.

So, comparing our private giving with Germany or France's public charity is not an illuminating exercise.

7:21 PM  
Blogger Giles Goodhead said...

Yes, comparing European public assistance to American private giving is far from an apples to apples comparison. Both types of charity are plagued with their own inefficiencies.

Will many of the 40 million mired below the poverty line have risen out by next year, thanks to the opportunities America provides? Upward economic mobility is one of America's greatest stereotypes. Its validity will be the subject of a future post.

10:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

brian,
I feel that the US give too much to those who don't deserve it on a global scale.Contributions made by us are repackaged into UN wrappers and don't reflect our donations. The world looks to us in time of need and then piss in our face and call us stingy. Only after AMERICAS' neededs have been met should one penny leave our borders.If socialist of the world are so successful why are they living below poverty. Capitalism is the answer to poverty in the world.If your not motivated,educated,or resourceful...starve!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

3:14 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous said...
brian,
I feel that the US give too much to those who don't deserve it on a global scale.Contributions made by us are repackaged into UN wrappers and don't reflect our donations. The world looks to us in time of need and then piss in our face and call us stingy. Only after AMERICAS' neededs have been met should one penny leave our borders.If socialist of the world are so successful why are they living below poverty. Capitalism is the answer to poverty in the world.If your not motivated,educated,or resourceful...starve!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Meg says:
This is a terrible attitude. Shame on you. If you ever lose your job or your house, I can only hope that you learn a little compassion for others.

By the way, I'm motivated, educated, resourcefuly and I have to work to a ridiculous degree to earn what I have. I still do not make enough to afford a house in a rising urban market. You're wrong to say that capitalism is the way to do things. We pay nearly $100 per bottle for the same antibiotics that cost $3 per bottle in Spain. We have to work so hard, we overeat and overwatch TV to cope with the stress. Salaried positions often take up 50 or more hours/week of your time. Hoorah for the women's movement: we women no longer have a choice but to work and leave prime-time to raise our children. If we don't, we can't afford the same health insurance that keeps those antiobiotics at $80, and has no other perks unless we are near death. No one protects American workers from downsizing. Imagine that elsewhere in the world people are healthy and raising close families in the towns they grew up in. Bet capitalism sounds like a hell of a deal to you now, doesn't it?

By the way, opponents of welfare in the US excluded many recipients but ironically allowed it to get raised to the equivalent of $7.50/hour for those who had such low educations that job prospects were very dubious.

Now, if the only burger-flipping job that you could get (provided that eager illegal aliens don't beat you to it) paid you $5.50, why in the hell WOULD you be "motivated" and "resourceful". If I were in their shoes, I'd just stay on welfare, feed my kids, and pay the bills.

Not everyone is the same. We need to be compassionate and realize that although a poor person doesn't always do everything intelligently right, we are only 6 degrees from being that person.

12:21 PM  

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