Most Americans Donate Little or Nothing to Charity

Children at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Auburn, New York (Jill Fandrich)
Children at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Auburn, New York (Jill Fandrich)

Americans like to think of themselves as a generous people.

Two-thirds of Americans agree that it is very important for them to be a generous person, according to the Science of Generosity survey.

Another quarter of Americans were neutral; just 10 percent disagreed that generosity was not a very important quality.

But the truth appears much different.

Forty-five percent of Americans, including nearly four in 10 who said a generous self-identity was important to them, actually gave no money to charity in the past year, the same survey found.

Less than a quarter of Americans gave more than $500.

What we end up with is a nation where a relatively few people give freely and abundantly, while most of us give little or nothing, Patricia Snell Herzog and Heather E. Price report in their new book, “American Generosity: Who Gives and Why.”

The two researchers, co-investigators with the Science of Generosity Initiative at the University of Notre Dame, delve into the survey findings and scores of personal interviews to present a portrait of the state of American giving.

It is often not an attractive picture.

The poor are with us

How much we give is partly the result of to how much we have. Just not in the way you might think.

About 30 percent of Americans living below the poverty level gave to charity, the study found.

Those most in need were twice as likely as non-poor Americans to donate up to 1 percent of their income. For contributions above 1 percent, there were no differences in the percentage of income given for people above and below the poverty level.

The findings demonstrate “the tremendous generosity that can be found among those with the least financial resources and the overall thinness of generosity among many with more financial resources,” Herzog and Price state.

The results also illustrate a wide divide in our understanding of and empathy for those most in need.

People in poverty have firsthand knowledge of their day-to-day struggles, which often involve choices such as putting food on the table vs. paying the rent. So they are aware that giving even a little can make a huge difference in the lives of their neighbors.

But researchers in the generosity survey also found that non-poor Americans are likely to be focused on the responsibilities of the people at the income level above them.

“One of our first kind of gut reactions with regard to giving can be that that’s for wealthy people to do,” Herzog said.

“People constantly think there’s some other point when they can have more money, or that somebody who already has more money may be more inclined to give or be more able to,” she added.

But that point often never comes.

In contrast to giving by the poor, Herzog noted, researchers would interview “a busy executive who makes so much money and has a brand-new car and a really nice house and seems to feel like it’s not enough.”

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David Briggs

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