The Culture of Charity


Approximately three-quarters of Americans give their time and money to various charities, churches, and causes; the other quarter of the population does not. Why has America split into two nations: givers and non-givers? Arthur Brooks has spent years researching this trend, and even he was surprised by what he found.

R&L: What motivated you to write this book? What questions were you hoping to answer?

Iím an economist and Iíve been doing charitable giving research for a long time. When economists look at charitable giving now, they always ask these prosaic questions like, ďwhat will happen to charitable giving if we decrease the death tax by a quarter?Ē Theyíre important questions, but theyíre really all about economic incentives. Over the years Iíve been involved in a lot of charitable giving efforts from the university and through my own church. Nobody has ever said to me privately, ďThe reason I give is because of that sweet tax break.Ē Thatís not why people give.

One of my great mentors is James Q. Wilson, a classic case of someone who has social science tools and chooses to answer the most interesting questions. Most social scientists actually choose not to answer interesting questions because that gets you in trouble. And thatís a ridiculous reason to not do research on important topics that actually affect peopleís lives. But when youíre a full professor with tenure, like I am, youíve got no excuse. A couple of years ago I said, ďIím protected in my career. Itís time to say something about why people give.Ē I have all the data. I own all the data on this stuff. So I figured nobodyís really looked effectively at the culture and politics of giving, and it was time to do it. And so I embarked on the study and systematically went through what I thought were the biggest social and cultural reasons why people give, and reported my results.

R&L: In your book, you identify four predictors of charity: religion, skepticism about the government in economic life, work, and strong families. How effective are these four categories in predicting the personal giving of individuals?

Theyíre hugely effective. Nothing is deterministic, which means that these things donít absolutely determine charitable giving, but predict charitable giving in an uncannily accurate way. The first is faith. Faith is one of the major predictors of values in American life and indeed in most countries. In the United States, in particular, faith and the lack of faith have defined a lot of cultural differences that intrude on our lives everyday ó everything from politics to how we feel about public expression, to what commentators call the coarsening of our culture. Itís not to say that people who are secular have a coarse culture and people who are secular canít give. Weíre just saying that faith predicts so accurately many of these social phenomena that you canít ignore it. Itís causal, actually.

And religious people just give like crazy.

And so thatís where I start the story. I found this difference between conservatives and liberals, and it wasnít because of politics. So I said, what is it due to? Why is it the conservatives give more than moderates and liberals? And the reason starts with the fact that there are so many religious conservatives in this country. And religious people just give like crazy. Religious liberals give like crazy. They give as much as religious conservatives, but there are fewer than one-third as many. So just by virtue of the arithmetic, you find that religious conservatives make conservatives look really good. Thatís the first.

The second is the belief that the role of government is to provide for needs ó that belief in and of itself suppresses charitable giving. Ask somebody, ďdo you think the government should do more to redistribute income?Ē People who strongly disagree with that give twelve times more money a year to charity than the people who strongly agree with that. You virtually never see differences that are that big. Even when you correct for income and age and education, there are big differences that persist between [those two] groups.

This boils down to a world philosophy. Whose responsibility is it to solve problems? All of us are somewhere between the idea that the government should do it all and that we should do it all. What you find is that for people who believe that itís the responsibility of society writ large [to solve problems], that very belief is suppressing their charitable giving. I think that most people who have those views and get that result and behavior donít realize it. I think people are just not aware that, in fact, your views on government are not a viable substitute for personal checks.

Most of my friends and colleagues are liberals, and this is one of the things that most characterizes the difference between political conservatives and liberals: the views on income redistribution. Liberals yell at me a lot saying, ďwe donít believe in income redistribution!Ē But if you ask, ďDo you think the government should do more to redress income in equality,Ē 80 percent of liberals say yes and 27 percent of conservatives say yes. This is the issue that differentiates conservatives from liberals today. [It] just culturally makes it harder for people who believe in income redistribution to give intuitively, to take personal ownership of a problem. And the one thing is, theyíre not bad people. I just think that this is impulse. I think itís human to feel compassionate because youíre willing to do something.

R&L: When we talk about a religious impulse behind charity, do we mean all religious traditions are equally engaged in helping the poor and needy?

Well, itís not all just helping the poor and needy. Giving to others is really what Iím talking about. A pretty small percentage of charitable giving actually makes its way to the poor. We do give away vast amounts that we share with each other. We give away a lot; itís just that not all of it is redistributed. The problem is that there are some people that think if charity is not redistributive, itís not charity. I canít imagine disagreeing more with that point of view, because I think that we need to share, and we all have needs, and our society has needs that are not just handing out sandwiches. We have needs for symphony orchestras and universities and environmental organizations, and that stuff is not redistributed, but we really need it and we need charity to pay for it. So, it doesnít socially trouble me that not all charity is going to the poor and needy, but what we should find is that religious people are more likely to give to all causes, and in both formal and informal ways, including to totally secular causes.

R&L: Most people, I would guess, would argue that first of all a certain level of prosperity is necessary for the kind of charitable giving that takes place in the United States. Can charitable giving contribute toward a more prosperous society?

You actually get a helperís high, and thatís precisely what psychologists call it. Psychologists have taken to prescribing service to others as a manner of therapy for patients. Iíve talked to clinical psychologists who routinely prescribe volunteering in a soup kitchen. Itís rather extraordinary because the benefits are so distinct.

Actually, the first thing that we find is that charitable giving is not predicated on having a lot of means. The working poor and the working lower middle class are actually the most generous Americans, when you look at the percentage of their income that they give away. And these people, ironically, have no tax incentive to give either. So, we Americans can take a charity lesson from people with modest means who work for a living in the United States. Thatís one thing that actually is pretty shocking, at least to me, that these are Americaís big givers. And a lot of that, once again, has to do with faith. But itís also true that the working poor and the working lower middle class are a highly income mobile group. And then, itís not a coincidence. My own research on family income shows that families that give tend to see about a four to one income increase that comes because of their charitable gifts in the long run. And the idea is that families that give have a different quality to them than families that donít give. They have more family integrity, and theyíre more likely to have healthy habits. They have more of a sense of meaning. Theyíre more productive. Theyíre liked better. Theyíre more socially adjusted and integrated. And the end result is that charitable giving is one of the things that measures the likelihood of people being successful.

You also find that charitable giving is part of the economic growth process; that when the United States gives more, it sees enormous return on investment in GDP over time. But probably the biggest impact that you see in peopleís lives is the happiness, the very clear happiness advantages that they get when they give. There are a lot of before and after experiments where people are measured on their happiness with surveys, and then theyíre asked to partake in a charitable giving experience of some kind, and then they measure their happiness again. In virtually every case, they get happier, even if theyíre helping the homeless or dying people. And the physiological explanation is that endorphins are released in the brain when people serve others. You actually get a helperís high, and thatís precisely what psychologists call it. Psychologists have taken to prescribing service to others as a manner of therapy for patients. Iíve talked to clinical psychologists who routinely prescribe volunteering in a soup kitchen. Itís rather extraordinary because the benefits are so distinct.

R&L: Is the idea of incentive antithetical to charity?

Frequently what we think of as rewarding peopleís charity is really just taking barriers away. Itís just dismantling disincentives to giving. In other words, Iím not going to confiscate as much of your money if you give. Thatís what tax breaks are. Itís not like you give something to charity and the government gives you a gift. They just take less of your money. Thatís not really a reward. Thatís simply taking away some of the barrier to giving. And I think that philosophically thatís more than just a sophistic difference. Itís rather an important substantive difference. Frankly, people donít even need tax incentives. At the maximum, getting rid of the tax incentives entirely would wipe out less than 20 percent of charitable giving in the short run, and that would probably all come back in the long run. So, it does change things a little bit in the margin. I can understand moral qualms about rewarding people, paying people for their charity because that doesnít seem like charity anymore, exactly, but getting rid of barriers is quite important.

R&L: What effect do you think your research will have?

How am I going to tithe my time, my love, my affection, my expertise?

Well, there are two effects that I hope it has. The first is that I hope that people read it and give more. I hope that people read it, examine their conscience, examine their giving patterns, think about the barriers to their own giving, and destroy the barriers. Thatís what I want, because itís so clear in my research that one of the greatest things you can do in your life is to give and to give more. The second measure of success for me will be if other researchers start challenging my findings and doing more research. I want replication. I want, in five years, to have more books and more articles and more op-eds out there saying, ďBrooks was wrong,Ē or ďBrooks was right,Ē and ďIíve got the data,Ē and ďIíve done this new research.Ē Thatís really what I want because if we spur a debate, people give more ó I canít imagine defining success in any other way.

I have an opportunity to talk a lot to clergy and a lot to serious evangelicals. When Iím talking to these groups, I say, ďLook into your hearts about what the Scripture really says.Ē When weíre talking about tithing, this is allegory. This is resources of value. In the American economy, the resource of value that we have is primarily intelligence, ideas, and creativity. Thatís the source of wealth in America today. That being the case, how are you going to tithe that? How are you going to tithe what you truly value and what is truly the engine of your growth? If youíre just doing cash, thatís not enough. As a matter of fact, thatís not really whatís going to lift other people up. Thatís not really our mission, in a sense. So Iím able to actually talk openly to challenge people to think about what tithing deeply means when we have a multi-dimensioned bundle of currencies and value. How am I going to tithe my time, my love, my affection, my expertise?

Thinking that way has totally changed my own views and changed my own behavior. I started writing this charity book and my wife says, ďI think we need to go and adopt a kid. I mean, read your chapters. This is a blessing to you and a blessing to others. This is an expression of our values, so come on. Letís express our values.Ē What am I supposed to say? No? Now we have another kid. And of course, who do you think is the net recipient of the benefit parts? Me, my wife, and our biological children. Weíre the ones who made out. Just like the data said.




Arthur C. Brooks. "The Culture of Charity." Religion & Liberty Volume 17, Number 2 (Spring 2007).

Brooks took time recently to speak with Religion & Liberty managing editor David Michael Phelps. Reprinted with permission of the Acton Institute.


Arthur C. Brooks is Professor of Public Administration and Director of the Nonprofit Studies Program at Syracuse Universityís Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.†In 2007,†he will be a Visiting Scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. He holds a PhD and MPhil in policy analysis, and an MA and BA in economics. Over the past eight years, Mr. Brooks has published approximately 100 articles and books on the connections between culture, politics, and economic life in America.

He speaks frequently in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, and is a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journalís editorial page and His latest book is Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism (Basic Books). He is currently working on a new book about the government's impact on citizens' happiness, entitled Bliss and Bureaucracy, as well as a textbook on social entrepreneurship.

Copyright © 2007 Acton Institute

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