Saturday, August 21, 2010

Giving way

There's an interesting little essay by Judith Warner about what she calls the "charitable-giving divide" in this weekend's Times Magazine. In case you didn't know, the poor are more generous than the rich:

In 2001, Independent Sector, a nonprofit organization focused on charitable giving, found that households earning less than $25,000 a year gave away an average of 4.2 percent of their incomes; those with earnings of more than $75,000 gave away 2.7 percent.

The context for Warner's essay is the question of renewing the Bush era tax cuts (which largely favored the wealthy), ongoing discussion about the inheritance tax, and the publicity boost for philanthropy produced by the Buffett-Gates billionaires' club. But there's nothing new about the giving divide; we've known about it for a while. Little surprise, too, to learn that wealthy giving tends to be itemized for maximum tax write-off, and is more likely to go to cultural and educational institutions which add to the donors' status among their peers.

Warner surveys some proffered explanations - wealth seems to reduce empathy, while people of more limited means are more likely to feel "there but for the grace of God go I." Yet it's a complex and cultural thing, involving perception as much as reality:

[Researcher Paul K.] Piff found that if higher-income people were instructed to imagine themselves as lower class, they became more charitable. If they were primed by, say, watching a sympathy-eliciting video, they became more helpful to others — so much so, in fact, that the difference between their behavior and that of the low-income subjects disappeared. And fascinatingly, the inverse was true as well: when lower-income people were led to think of themselves as upper class, they actually became less altruistic.

I'm tempted to speculate that part of what's at work here is that wealth is a fantasy of autonomy - a fantasy because, of course, the wealthy are dependent on social and political arrangements, too. It makes sense for people to want to be autonomous - dependent on noone - especially in the uncertainty of contemporary America. Yet the reality surely is that such autonomy must inevitably be impossible and illusory for the vast majority of people in any society, and is thus a socially corrosive ideal.

Warner doesn't mention the role that religion and politics play in all this. As it happens, religiously observant people and Republicans are more charitable than skeptics and Democrats - one of those "inconvenient facts" it delights a Weberian pedagogue's heart to share. This was described in Arthur C. Brooks' 2006 book Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism (Basic Books), a book which seems not to have been reviewed in the Times. (I learned about it from Books & Culture.) Of course poor religious folk still give more than rich ones, and religious Democrats give as much as religious Republicans. And Democrats give in other ways - they're more willing to pay higher taxes to provide social services for the needy, for one thing. But still: it changes things to know who actually walks the walk, and why.

A better understanding of giving would have to take into account culture, religion and politics as well as wealth. But if your concern is that social needs be met, it may be looking at the wrong end of things to focus on giving, let alone to pin your hope on it. It seems pretty clear that you'll need progressive taxation. (Notice that the generous billionaires aren't giving their money to the public sphere.) As long as ours is a society which values fantasies of autonomy, private giving cannot be relied on to support the needy.

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