Yesterday, I wrote about a report put out by The Chronicle of Philanthropy disaggregating the amount of charitable giving according to various criteria. In its discussion of the report, NPR said that poor people tended to give a larger proportion of their income to charity, and tried to explain why this might be so.
Paul Piff, a social psychologist at the University of California, Berkeley, says that’s consistent with what he’s found in years of research on income and giving.
“The more wealth you have, the more focused on your own self and your own needs you become, and the less attuned to the needs of other people you also become,” he says.
Piff says it’s not that rich people aren’t generous. They’re often just isolated. They don’t see a lot of poor people in their daily lives.
The charitable giving report does provide some support for that idea. As the NPR report says, “rich people are more generous when they live among those who aren’t so rich.”
I think another factor may be that people who are very wealthy tend to be immune from fears of impoverishment and thus more easily think that they deserved their wealth because they are clever and industrious. The corollary to that belief is that the poor are so because they are incompetent or even unworthy and thus do not deserve any assistance since they will only squander it due to their weak character and poor habits. They are the ‘undeserving poor’ as Alfred Doolittle put so well in My Fair Lady.
People in the middle and lower incomes, on the other hand, are well aware of the precariousness of their current well-being and the amount that luck plays in their lives. While they may be doing satisfactorily at the moment, they know that losing a job or getting ill could easily send them into the poor house. Thus they are less likely to see themselves as better than the poor or the destitute.
I really have no empirical evidence to support this belief of mine. I acquired it very early in life, around the age of 12 or so. My mother was a die-hard do-gooder, always collecting money for various charitable causes and she would rope me into those efforts from the time I was a little boy. In Sri Lanka a popular form of fund-raising for charity was something called a flag day designated for a specific charity. Volunteers would be given a sealed tin can with a slot pierced into the lid and fan out into the streets to ask people to drop money into the can and in return get a small flag that they could pin to their clothes to show that they had contributed.
So I, sometimes accompanied by a friend if I could collar one, would walk along the streets stopping people as I went along and also knocking on the doors of homes that I passed. I quickly noticed a pattern: that poor people would hardly ever turn me down and they would give even a little with a smile. Some richer people would give generously but surprisingly often they would ignore me or say they had no change or that they were in a hurry and would give later. (In Sri Lanka it is very easy to tell the economic and social class of people by the way they look and dress.) As a result I much preferred to approach poor people to ask for money.
People who live paycheck to paycheck know that it would take very little for them to end up at the receiving end of charity, rather than the giving end, and thus tend to be generous. But it is easy to lose that sensibility when one becomes very wealthy and think that one did it on one’s own. See this short clip in which actor Craig T. Nelson rails against the welfare state, praises the ruthlessness of the capitalist system, and then tells Glenn Beck how he used to be really poor but became successful all on his own. Notice the total lack of self-awareness when he says, “I’ve been on food stamps and welfare. Anybody help me out? No.”
This lack of awareness of how others have helped them achieve success is unfortunately all too common among the wealthy.