America the charitable: a few surprises
Everybody knows Americans are big givers. But their charitable impulses keep generating surprises.Skip to next paragraph
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Consider just a few conclusions from recent research:
•Charitable giving plays an even larger role in the economy than is suggested by some $260 billion in annual contributions. Each dollar of giving appears to create $19 of extra national income, according to a book released this past weekend.
•Demand for nonprofit services gets proportionately bigger, not smaller, as a locality's income rises, a Federal Reserve economist finds.
•The philanthropy of the wealthy may not hinge on tax incentives to the degree many believe. In one new survey, a majority of wealthy givers say they would contribute the same amount if the estate tax were abolished. Ditto, they said, if they could no longer deduct the value of gifts from their taxable income.
These disparate studies are shedding light not just on who gives but also on why they give and what their actions mean to society. Often, the conclusions run counter to expectations.
"This is supposed to be the start of a conversation. It's the first word, not the last word," says Arthur Brooks, referring to his new book on charity, called "Who Really Cares." "We need more people thinking about [the study of charitable giving] in a serious way."
He and other experts say that by understanding charity better, Americans can learn how to encourage more giving. The result would probably be a healthier and wealthier society.
Of course, it's not as if American philanthropy has never been studied before. A number of institutions track the nonprofit sector full-time in one way or another. But the data on charity-linked activities are far less complete – and less systematically analyzed – than for areas such as government and private industry.
One thing that's long been known: The US leads the world in levels of charitable activity. The pattern runs from the rich, steeped in long tradition of philanthropy, to the poor. Those making $20,000 or less a year give away more, as a share of their income, than do higher income groups.
Americans donate their time as well as money – some $150 billion worth annually (measured by using an estimated average value of $18.04 per hour).
"I see a great commitment," says Karen Rivers, who recruits helpers for the Colorado branch of Volunteers of America in Denver. "We just were inundated with people who wanted to volunteer for Thanksgiving Day."
She had to turn volunteers away as the group served holiday meals to about 3,000 homeless and others in need.
Some experts see charity as a defining trait of the US, more than consumerism or business. But those forces may be intertwined.
For one thing, many nonprofits are selling services – from healthcare to classical music – in a marketplace alongside for-profit rivals. By many measures, they are successful.