A new study by the Chronicle of Philanthropy breaks down charitable giving by zip code. As a function of their income, the northeast regions of the country seem to give proportionately less than the south.
But since we have a wealth of other data that is also disaggregated geographically, this enables people to look at correlations of charitable giving with other factors and it was interesting to see how different news outlets selected which correlations to focus on.
For example, the London Daily Mail said that the study showed that “U.S. states with the least religious residents are also the stingiest about giving money to charity”, since religiosity in the northeastern states is less than in the south.
NPR, on the other hand, looked at the same charitable data and reported that “lower-income people tend to donate a much bigger share of their discretionary incomes than wealthier people do.” This also makes sense since the southern states are poorer than the northeastern ones.
But as one analyst pointed out, such simple single-factor correlation models can be misleading.
Alan Wolfe, a political science professor at Boston College, said it’s wrong to link a state’s religious makeup with its generosity. People in less religious states are giving in a different way by being more willing to pay higher taxes so the government can equitably distribute superior benefits, Wolfe said.
And the distribution is based purely on need, rather than religious affiliation or other variables, said Wolfe, also head of the college’s Boisi Center for Religion and Public Life.
Wolfe said people in less religious states ‘view the tax money they’re paying not as something that’s forced upon them, but as a recognition that they belong with everyone else, that they’re citizens in the common good. … I think people here believe that when they pay their taxes, they’re being altruistic.’
This shows how you have to be careful with extracting cause and effect, especially when there may be two or more causes for the same effect that are themselves correlated with each other.