The correlation of charitable giving with income and religiosity


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.

Comments

  1. smrnda says

    I hear right-wingers bring up the statistic about religious people or regions giving more of their money to ‘charity’ as opposed to liberal areas, though they seem to be unable to accept that paying higher taxes to support government programs can ever be a valid means of promoting social welfare. The basic right-wing belief on taxes is that it’s always taking money from the ‘worthy’ and giving it to the ‘unworthy.’

    The other problem is I don’t think that donating to a religious agency should necessarily count as ‘charity.’ It seems more like investing in propaganda.

    I don’t disagree that many poor people donate a higher % of their income to charity, but that’s because they likely encounter more people in need, but the whole idea of solving social problems through individual generosity is just ineffective and inefficient. If anything, it should raise the question of why rich people get tax writeoffs for charity more so than poor people.

  2. 'Tis Himself says

    Does charitable giving include giving to churches? The philanthropy.com was very short on specifics like this.

  3. weaver says

    Given the very low efficiency rating most churches get for their received donations, I would far prefer to send my money to a state to distribute to those in need – especially since that need will not be lrestricted by such matters as bigoted churches regularly apply.

  4. Paul says

    Does charitable giving include giving to churches? The philanthropy.com was very short on specifics like this.

    Unambiguously, yes.

    The study is based on exact dollar amounts released by the Internal Revenue Service showing the value of charitable deductions claimed by American taxpayers.

    10% is a very typical figure for the expected tithe for many Christian denominations (and flat required for Mormons as I understand it, although even your standard Christians get a good bit of peer pressure to at least give that 10%). This seems like more than enough to account for the 1% difference between religious and nonreligious regions (and outs a lot of Christians as poor tippers).

  5. Paul says

    Trying without a link (it looks borked in the preview, anyway):

    Does charitable giving include giving to churches? The philanthropy.com was very short on specifics like this.

    Unambiguously, yes. From “How the Study was Compiled”:

    The study is based on exact dollar amounts released by the Internal Revenue Service showing the value of charitable deductions claimed by American taxpayers.

    10% is a very typical figure for the expected tithe for many Christian denominations (and flat required for Mormons as I understand it, although even your standard Christians get a good bit of peer pressure to at least give that 10%). This seems like more than enough to account for the 1% difference between religious and nonreligious regions (and outs a lot of Christians as poor tippers).

  6. Reginald Selkirk says

    Everyone seems to be on the same track here: giving to churches may not end up helping the poor and unfortunate. We have all seen the lavish lifestyle enjoyed by TV preachers, and we don’t consider money spend promoting a ban of gay marriage to be charitable either.

  7. Flex says

    Actually, I’d suggest that this ties in very well with the ideas in David Fisher’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America.

    One of his points is that the NE was settled by Puritans who stressed community over individuality. This is compared to the Scottish/English Borderers, who settled the South and West, who stressed individuality over community.

    A cultural willingness to pay higher taxes to allow the community to provide services for everyone, as opposed to handing individual contributions to a trusted member of the community like a parson, could explain the difference.

    Culture changes slowly, even in today’s world.

  8. left0ver1under says

    I agree wholeheartedly. I know that some of my taxes are going to help those between jobs, going to help pay for schools, etc. Many such things don’t benefit me personally, but they help society as a whole.

    People accuse me of being a tightwad for refusing to give to the Slavenation Army and other religious groups which impose religious filth upon the poor. Their credo is, “No religion = no food”. That’s not charity.

    I give, but only to groups that won’t place restrictions upon those who receive (e.g. trade unions, women’s shelters, etc.). The only restriction for getting help should be need, not religious or political affiliation. Ethnic societies might limit help to only their own group, but it’s not as bad as religions demanding obedience and membership in order to receive help.

  9. TGAP Dad says

    I think we would need to be able to consider the churches’ spending of the “charitable” contributions. Where some churches provide legitimate social services, like soup kitchens and homeless shelters, a great deal of their spending goes to activities like proselytizing (ie missions abroad) or social programs which do not benefit society at large, like protests, “crisis pregnancy” centers, and anti-gay campaigns. I think to be fair, the church donations should be adjusted to reflect their spending.

    On the other hand, it looks like the journal only wanted to consider the behavior – people parting with their money – and not the the nuances of “charity.” My inner cynic might see a journal attempting to promote the meme that religious people are naturally more charitable.

  10. Kate from Iowa says

    There’s the need to look at the culture of the area too. All that self-sufficiency and frugality of the traditional “Yankee” view as opposed to the more er…”Southern Hospitality” tradition and the Midwestern “Good Neighborliness” and etc, etc, etc. Charity is not always charity, and some forms of charity are not always recorded or recordable in dollar amounts of giving. Growing up in a relatively poor if not poverty-stricken neighborhood in Iowa, I can think of a hell of a lot of times clothing was traded up and down the block as one kid grew out of it and another grew into it. That kind of thing can’t be measured in this kind of study, but it seemed normal to us, and much more useful a way of going about it than handing money off to someone else to give to someone just as poor as your neighbor. And nine times out of ten we were feeding extra people, people were acting as handywo/men for each other and a few neighbors who gardened (or the two who pooled thier money and bought chickens) were providing food for whever needed it most. Yes, that’s just one example from twenty odd years ago from one little neighborhood, but my point is, they’re looking at an extremely narrow view of what charity is.

    Not that I think the truly wealthy give a higher percentage of anything than the poor. I doubt that they even recognise some of the needs that thier poorer neighbors have fulfilled through the charity of others of that same poorer socio-economical strata. They’re too used to being able to just go out and buy it, rather than needing the neighbor’s oldest son to come over and weld a new bottom onto the tank for the water heater, if he’s out of prison again yet.

  11. smrnda says

    I’d also add that, given the prevalence of the working poor, wealthy people, if they even give to charity, are probably only giving back a tiny fraction of the wages they have stolen from workers.

    For the last year I’ve made good money, but before that I probably made about 12,000 a year. I would give money to a handful of secular agencies that I thought were doing a good job. I walked into the local wal-mart where they had this sign up boasting about how much they gave that year.

    It was less than what I gave, and I didn’t get a tax dodge for my donation. Plus, how much money was that wal-mart making? How many of its workers are on government aid? Don’t have health care? Is my charitable donations going to help workers they could have very well paid better but chose to screw over instead?

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