Widows' mites

IT often seems nowadays that the typical American family is too much squeezed by mortgage payments and other obligations to give to those less well off, and too tired after coping with the demands of work and home to respond to the needs of others outside that immediate circle. But a major new study of charitable giving and volunteer work in the United States would seem to belie that image. This survey, by the Gallup Organization for Independent Sector, a philanthropic umbrella group, found that 71 percent of the country's 91 million households give to charity, and of those that do, the average amount donated is $790 in a year.

And of the 80 million Americans engaged in some form of volunteer work, the average involvement is 4.7 hours a week, up substantially from previous studies. This amounts to 19.5 billion hours annually.

The study also belies another image: that of noblesse oblige among the more affluent within the population.

The study found that nearly half of total charitable contributions came from households with incomes below $30,000 annually. Households with income below $10,000 contribute an average of 2.8 percent of their earnings - nearly twice the 1.5 percent given by households in the $50,000-to-$100,000 range. And remember, the charitable-donations deduction on the tax form means that wealthy donors can give more cheaply than the less affluent.

Brian O'Connell, president of Independent Sector, says that relatively speaking ``people of means cannot be described as particularly caring. For that primary category of humaneness, it is the poor and the struggling who generally lead the way.''

These may be the people who are personally closer to those in even direr straits; they give because they know how great the need is, not to see their names listed in a directory of donors.

It all puts the biblical story of the widow's mite into perspective.

The Independent Sector study is intended for use as a prod to those who remain uninvolved. The group plans to urge all Americans to ``Give five'' - 5 percent of their time and money.

In a political season where most appeals are being made to individual self-interest (``Are you better off now than eight years ago?'') rather than the commonweal, it is good to hear someone set forth a standard of what people owe their communities. John Kennedy's memory has been much evoked during this campaign, but his rousing demand, ``Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country,'' has languished unquoted.

But this study is heartening; it reminds us that the mites are mightier than we may have imagined.

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