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The Culture of Charity

David Michael Phelps

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Arthur C. Brooks, the author of Who Really Cares (Basic Books, 2006), is a professor at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Public Affairs and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Reviewing the book in The Wall Street Journal, Wilfred McClay wrote: "Mr. Brooks concludes that four distinct forces appear to have primary responsibility for making people behave charitably: religion, skepticism about the government's role in economic life, strong families and personal entrepreneurship." Brooks took time recently to speak with Religion & Liberty managing editor David Michael Phelps.

What motivated you to write this book? What questions were you hoping to answer?

I'm an economist and I've been doing charitable giving research for a long time. When economists look at charitable giving now, they always ask these prosaic questions like, "what will happen to charitable giving if we decrease the death tax by a quarter?" They're important questions, but they're really all about economic incentives. Over the years I've been involved in a lot of charitable giving efforts from the university and through my own church. Nobody has ever said to me privately, "The reason I give is because of that sweet tax break." That's not why people give.

One of my great mentors is James Q. Wilson, a classic case of someone who has social science tools and chooses to answer the most interesting questions. Most social scientists actually choose not to answer interesting questions because that gets you in trouble. And that's a ridiculous reason to not do research on important topics that actually affect people's lives. But when you're a full professor with tenure, like I am, you've got no excuse. A couple of years ago I said, "I'm protected in my career. It's time to say something about why people give." I have all the data. I own all the data on this stuff. So I figured nobody's really looked effectively at the culture and politics of giving, and it was time to do it. And so I embarked on the study and systematically went through what I thought were the biggest social and cultural reasons why people give, and reported my results.

In your book, you identify four predictors of charity: religion, skepticism about the government in economic life, work, and strong families. How effective are these four categories in predicting the personal giving of individuals?

They're hugely effective. Nothing is deterministic, which means that these things don't absolutely determine charitable giving, but predict charitable giving in an uncannily accurate way. The first is faith. Faith is one of the major predictors of values in American life and indeed in most countries. In the United States, in particular, faith and the lack of faith have defined a lot of cultural differences that intrude on our lives everyday--everything from politics to how we feel about public expression, to what commentators call the coarsening of our culture. It's not to say that people who are secular have a coarse culture and people who are secular can't give. We're just saying that faith predicts so accurately many of these social phenomena that you can't ignore it. It's causal, actually.

And so that's where I start the story. I found this difference between conservatives and liberals, and it wasn't because of politics. So I said, what is it due to? Why is it the conservatives give more than moderates and liberals? And the reason starts with the fact that there are so many religious conservatives in this country. And religious people just give like crazy. Religious liberals give like crazy. They give as much as religious conservatives, but there are fewer than one-third as many. So just by virtue of the arithmetic, you find that religious conservatives make conservatives look really good. That's the first.

The second is the belief that the role of government is to provide for needs--that belief in and of itself suppresses charitable giving. Ask somebody, "do you think the government should do more to redistribute income?" People who strongly disagree with that give twelve times more money a year to charity than the people who strongly agree with that. You virtually never see differences that are that big. Even when you correct for income and age and education, there are big differences that persist between [those two] groups.

This boils down to a world philosophy. Whose responsibility is it to solve problems? All of us are somewhere between the idea that the government should do it all and that we should do it all. What you find is that for people who believe that it's the responsibility of society writ large [to solve problems], that very belief is suppressing their charitable giving. I think that most people who have those views and get that result and behavior don't realize it. I think people are just not aware that, in fact, your views on government are not a viable substitute for personal checks.

Most of my friends and colleagues are liberals, and this is one of the things that most characterizes the difference between political conservatives and liberals: the views on income redistribution. Liberals yell at me a lot saying, "we don't believe in income redistribution!" But if you ask, "Do you think the government should do more to redress income in equality," 80 percent of liberals say yes and 27 percent of conservatives say yes. This is the issue that differentiates conservatives from liberals today. [It] just culturally makes it harder for people who believe in income redistribution to give intuitively, to take personal ownership of a problem. And the one thing is, they're not bad people. I just think that this is impulse. I think it's human to feel compassionate because you're willing to do something.

When we talk about a religious impulse behind charity, do we mean all religious traditions are equally engaged in helping the poor and needy?

Well, it's not all just helping the poor and needy. Giving to others is really what I'm talking about. A pretty small percentage of charitable giving actually makes its way to the poor. We do give away vast amounts that we share with each other. We give away a lot; it's just that not all of it is redistributed. The problem is that there are some people that think if charity is not redistributive, it's not charity. I can't imagine disagreeing more with that point of view, because I think that we need to share, and we all have needs, and our society has needs that are not just handing out sandwiches. We have needs for symphony orchestras and universities and environmental organizations, and that stuff is not redistributed, but we really need it and we need charity to pay for it. So, it doesn't socially trouble me that not all charity is going to the poor and needy, but what we should find is that religious people are more likely to give to all causes, and in both formal and informal ways, including to totally secular causes.

Most people, I would guess, would argue that first of all a certain level of prosperity is necessary for the kind of charitable giving that takes place in the United States. Can charitable giving contribute toward a more prosperous society?

Actually, the first thing that we find is that charitable giving is not predicated on having a lot of means. The working poor and the working lower middle class are actually the most generous Americans, when you look at the percentage of their income that they give away. And these people, ironically, have no tax incentive to give either. So, we Americans can take a charity lesson from people with modest means who work for a living in the United States. That's one thing that actually is pretty shocking, at least to me, that these are America's big givers. And a lot of that, once again, has to do with faith. But it's also true that the working poor and the working lower middle class are a highly income mobile group. And then, it's not a coincidence. My own research on family income shows that families that give tend to see about a four to one income increase that comes because of their charitable gifts in the long run. And the idea is that families that give have a different quality to them than families that don't give. They have more family integrity, and they're more likely to have healthy habits. They have more of a sense of meaning. They're more productive. They're liked better. They're more socially adjusted and integrated. And the end result is that charitable giving is one of the things that measures the likelihood of people being successful.

You also find that charitable giving is part of the economic growth process; that when the United States gives more, it sees enormous return on investment in GDP over time. But probably the biggest impact that you see in people's lives is the happiness, the very clear happiness advantages that they get when they give. There are a lot of before and after experiments where people are measured on their happiness with surveys, and then they're asked to partake in a charitable giving experience of some kind, and then they measure their happiness again. In virtually every case, they get happier, even if they're helping the homeless or dying people. And the physiological explanation is that endorphins are released in the brain when people serve others. You actually get a helper's high, and that's precisely what psychologists call it. Psychologists have taken to prescribing service to others as a manner of therapy for patients. I've talked to clinical psychologists who routinely prescribe volunteering in a soup kitchen. It's rather extraordinary because the benefits are so distinct.

Is the idea of incentive antithetical to charity?

Frequently what we think of as rewarding people's charity is really just taking barriers away. It's just dismantling disincentives to giving. In other words, I'm not going to confiscate as much of your money if you give. That's what tax breaks are. It's not like you give something to charity and the government gives you a gift. They just take less of your money. That's not really a reward. That's simply taking away some of the barrier to giving. And I think that philosophically that's more than just a sophistic difference. It's rather an important substantive difference. Frankly, people don't even need tax incentives. At the maximum, getting rid of the tax incentives entirely would wipe out less than 20 percent of charitable giving in the short run, and that would probably all come back in the long run. So, it does change things a little bit in the margin. I can understand moral qualms about rewarding people, paying people for their charity because that doesn't seem like charity anymore, exactly, but getting rid of barriers is quite important.

What effect do you think your research will have?

Well, there are two effects that I hope it has. The first is that I hope that people read it and give more. I hope that people read it, examine their conscience, examine their giving patterns, think about the barriers to their own giving, and destroy the barriers. That's what I want, because it's so clear in my research that one of the greatest things you can do in your life is to give and to give more. The second measure of success for me will be if other researchers start challenging my findings and doing more research. I want replication. I want, in five years, to have more books and more articles and more op-eds out there saying, "Brooks was wrong," or "Brooks was right," and "I've got the data," and "I've done this new research." That's really what I want because if we spur a debate, people give more--I can't imagine defining success in any other way.

I have an opportunity to talk a lot to clergy and a lot to serious evangelicals. When I'm talking to these groups, I say, "Look into your hearts about what the Scripture really says." When we're talking about tithing, this is allegory. This is resources of value. In the American economy, the resource of value that we have is primarily intelligence, ideas, and creativity. That's the source of wealth in America today. That being the case, how are you going to tithe that? How are you going to tithe what you truly value and what is truly the engine of your growth? If you're just doing cash, that's not enough. As a matter of fact, that's not really what's going to lift other people up. That's not really our mission, in a sense. So I'm able to actually talk openly to challenge people to think about what tithing deeply means when we have a multi-dimensioned bundle of currencies and value. How am I going to tithe my time, my love, my affection, my expertise?

Thinking that way has totally changed my own views and changed my own behavior. I started writing this charity book and my wife says, "I think we need to go and adopt a kid. I mean, read your chapters. This is a blessing to you and a blessing to others. This is an expression of our values, so come on. Let's express our values." What am I supposed to say? No? Now we have another kid. And of course, who do you think is the net recipient of the benefit parts? Me, my wife, and our biological children. We're the ones who made out. Just like the data said.

Read the entire article on the Acton Institute website (new window will open). Reprinted with permission.

Posted: 17-Jul-07



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