Friday, January 27, 2012

Generous America

America's culture is changing and complex - filled with subcultures and influences from around the globe. One clear feature, however, is that Americans give - they are statistical outliers in their support for charities. Forbes magazine reports that

The Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project at the Johns Hopkins Center for Civil Society Studies compiled a ranking of private philanthropy in 36 countries from 1995 to 2002. Based on giving alone, the U.S. comes first, giving 1.85% of GDP, followed by Israel at 1.34% and Canada at 1.17%. But based on volunteerism alone, the Netherlands comes first, followed by Sweden and then the U.S.
America gives more, both as a percentage of its incomes, and in total dollar value, than any other country. In terms of volunteerism, America ranks third, which isn't bad, when you remember that there are hundreds of countries in the world.

Among developed nations, those with higher taxes and bigger social safety nets tend to have lower rates of giving. In charitable giving as a percentage of GDP, nations with cradle-to-grave welfare systems rank far down the Johns Hopkins list: Sweden 18th, France 21st, Germany 32nd.
There are many possible explanations for America's desire to help the poor. Historically, many of the early settlers were deeply religious, and set a precedent for donating to those in need. In contemporary culture, leaders demonstrate by their own examples that charity is still a core American value:
Dick and Lynn Cheney gave 78% of their income away in 2005.
Cynics point out that movie stars and famous athletes might give to charities in order to gain a tax break. But simple mathematics doesn't support this, showing that
the tax break can't account for most American giving. After all, you still have less money after your donation than you did before - depending on what you earn, the hit to your pocket book is at least 65% of the dollar figure you gave, and more if you're not in the top income bracket. (And while most Americans give to charity, most don't itemize their tax deductions, which would be required to take advantage of the break.)
In fact, many Americans fail to take full advantage of the tax breaks - they simply forget, or don't take the time, to declare all of their charitable giving on their tax forms. This holds true for both rich and middle-income families: all along the income spectrum, we find significant donation to humanitarian causes:
Indeed, America has a culture of giving that goes far beyond tax breaks. While the wealthiest citizens give the most in sheer dollar amounts - the top 10% accounting for at least a quarter of giving, according to Arthur C. Brooks - it's in fact low-income employed Americans who give the highest portion of their income, or 4.5%.
From the richest of the rich, to those who themselves have only a little more than those are receiving charity, Americans have a culture of philanthropy. American institutions, from canned goods collections at Thanksgiving and Christmas, to the year-long flow of groceries to food banks and homeless shelters, have made charitable giving a cornerstone of our societal identity.