During the recent presidential campaign, conservative policymakers were heavily criticized for tax cuts. John Kerry used biblical language to decry these measures.
In December 2005, Jim Wallis, the liberal Christian writer and political advocate, took this a step further in response to Republican budget cuts to social programs: “[Christian conservatives] are trading the lives of the poor people for their [political] agenda. They’re being, and this the worst insult, unbiblical.” He went on to quote from Isaiah 10:1-2: “Woe unto them that decree unrighteous decrees, and that write grievousness which they have prescribed, to turn aside the needy from judgment, and to take away the right from the poor of my people, that widows may be their prey, and that they may rob the fatherless!” (19)
We also hear that the Religious Right cares about abortion and homosexuality but not about the poor. Are these characterizations true? Arthur C. Brooks, professor of public administration at Syracuse University, set out study this topic. His assumption was that progressives would give higher percentages of their money and time because of their ethos of helping others. The results of his extensive research shocked him and last year he published the results of his research in Who Really Cares? American’s Charity Divide. The Suprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism.
First, imagine two people: One goes to church every week and strongly rejects the idea that it is government’s responsibility to redistribute income between people who have a lot of money and people who don’t. The other person never attends a house of worship, and strongly believes that the government should reduce income differences. Knowing only these things, the data tell us that the first person will be roughly twice as likely as the second to give money to charities in a given year, and will give away more than one hundred times as much money per year (as well as fifty times more to explicitly nonreligious causes).
Or take two other people who are identical with respect to household incomes, education, age, sex, and race. One receives assistance from the government in the form of housing support, welfare payments, or food stamps; does not belong to a house of worship; and is a single parent. The second is a working poor person (although his or her total household income is just as low as the first person’s, he or she does not receive government assistance), belongs to a house of worship, and is a married parent. According to the data, the second person will be, on average, more than seven times as likely to make a donation to charity each year. (10-11)
Brooks studied charity using two variables: church attendance and positions on government redistribution of income. High church attendance makes you religious and opposition to government redistribution makes you a conservative. The opposing positions make you secular and progressive. Looking at these two variables, he then studied financial giving in frequency and quantity, as well as amount of time given to volunteerism. Using the data for those who had strong positions on both variables he delineated four groups:
Religious Conservatives (19.1% of the population) – They look most like the national average although they are a little older (ave. age 49) and more likely to be married. They are the most likely to give money each year and give an average $2,367 per household versus the national average of $1,347. (46-47)
Secular Conservatives (7.3%) – Tend to be single men with low income and little education. They are the least charitable of the four groups. (47)
Secular Liberals (10.5%) – Compared to Religious Conservatives, they are younger (ave. age 40), more likely to be single, and have considerably higher education. They are the wealthiest of the four groups. They give about have as much in percentage as the national average. (48-49)
Religious Liberals (6.4%) – Are far more likely to be of a minority group. They are more likely than the average to have a college degree or higher. They are almost as likely to give something as Religious Conservatives but give 10% less. (49-50)
The break down of giving by economic class was also interesting. Poor families are less likely than middle-class families to give to charity, and the middle class is less likely to contribute than the rich. (78-79) However, the poor give about 4-5% of their income and the rich give away about 3-4%. Both give away considerably more than the middle class. (79-80) This seeming discrepancy is explained by a dichotomy among the poor. If you take two families with identical incomes, except one is of the working poor and the other’s income is from public assistance, the first type of family is the most generous of all groups and the second family among the least. Brooks identifies young liberals as the least charitable of all. (22)
The relationship between charitable giving and ideas about income redistribution is by no means obvious. In fact, before I started the research for this book, I presumed that those people most concerned and vocal about economic inequality would be the most likely to give charity. But I was wrong. Instead I found a large amount of data all pointing in the same direction: For many people, the desire to donate other people’s money displaces the act of giving one’s own. (55)
Later he notes:
How is it that liberals, who often claim to care more about others than conservatives do, are personally less charitable? The answer is most likely not that average liberals are purposely disingenuous – it is that they often confuse political ideology with actual giving. (70)
I suspect the religious progressives also buy into a double myth. First, they believe Religious Conservatives are not as charitable as they are. Second, they believe Secular Liberals are as charitable as they are, or are at least more charitable than Religious Conservatives.
Brooks goes on to show how secularization and government welfare tend to depress charity and is sometimes actually destructive for mediating institutions like family, church and voluntary associations. From the late 1960s until the 1990s, Aid to Families with Dependent Children was given only to single parent homes, which were nearly always single mothers. Mothers could get more money from the government than they could from having low-skilled fathers in the home. Black children raised in fatherless homes shot up from below 20% in the 1960s to nearly 70% today. Fatherlessness among the poor in other ethnic groups has increased as well. Where churches, neighborhoods, and mediating institutions used to offer the role models, nurture and tough love that helped shape the lives of the poor into productive citizens, the poor now know that these institutions hold no compelling influence in their lives. They can “work” an impersonal government bureaucracy to get what they need without any accountability to neighbors or community. This disconnectedness from community discourages connectedness with others and decimates charitableness.
One particularly interesting question Brooks deals with is the casual relationship between charity and prosperity, which seem to go together. Brooks concludes that charity actually leads to prosperity. Charity makes you feel good about yourself and more connected to others. This connectedness and other-centeredness are precisely the requisite traits that are needed to advance in business and to improve economically. Also, givers are considerably more happy than non-givers. (150)
Brooks also compares the United States to other nations. He notes the frequent criticisms from Europe and elsewhere about American stinginess, giving only .1% of GDP to foreign aid (about $10 bil.). Most nations give between .1-.2%. The United Nations set a goal in 1992 that Western nations should give .7% of GDP for aid. However, when you add up aid in other types of government assistance ($13 bil.) and contributions from foundations, religious congregations, voluntary organizations, universities, corporations, individuals and other private sources ($50 bil) you get about .5%. (119) European giving of this kind is negligible by comparison. Brooks points to the fact that Europe is decidedly more secularized than America. When he examines stats in Europe he finds that regular church attendees are more charitable than non-attendees, just as in the United States. There are just relatively fewer of them. Survey’s also consistently show that higher percentages of Americans report they are happy with life than do most people in European nations.
These are just a few highlights from the book. There is an appendix with statistical data and sources are well documented. What should be obvious from just the highlights I’ve given is that it is a myth that Conservative Christians don’t care about the poor. For Religious Progressives like Wallis to run around denouncing Religious Conservatives as those who do not care about the poor is disingenuous and inflammatory. The issue is that Religious Conservatives differ with Religious Progressives on the best strategies to help the poor. Brooks wants to marry ideas of charity and government aid together.
What I am calling for, then, is not a wholesale rejection of core progressive values – the liberals should still be liberals – but rather a selective rejection of the forces that weaken personal generosity. I am asking liberals to stand up for charity. (182)
I tend to be sympathetic with progressives in their critic of an excessively individualistic and consumerist society. Where I part ways is with their persistent conflation of “society” with “government.” They are indistinguishable terms in the progressive parlance. Society needs to address the needs of the poor. How do we know if we are addressing the needs of the poor? Jim Wallis tells us the US budget is a moral document and the way it indicates morality is the percentage of dollars being spent on the poor. We measure aid by how much input the federal government has made. This reminds me about the analogy of the movie “Catwoman,” which totally bombed at the box office. Using progressive logic we should conclude “Catwoman” was an outstanding movie because we input 100 million dollars into its production. The measure of aid to the poor is not the money invested but did the plight of the poor actually change!
Society is not the government. Government is one institution of society. There are other mediating institutions like family, church, neighborhood, and voluntary associations. The irony in much of the progressive agenda to help the poor, over against individualism and consumerism, is that their obsessive government orientation creates polices that actually damage mediating institutions and create more atomization in society. The focus for helping the poor and strengthening society ought to be nurture and empowerment of mediating institutions, not governmental intervention.
Brooks has made a wonderful contribution to an important debate with his book. I highly recommend it.