Who really gives?

When I was much younger than today, my world was divided between the “children of light” and the “children of darkness.” I never doubted that my left-wing friends (i.e. everybody I knew) and I belonged to the former camp, and the troglodytes at the other end of the political spectrum to the children of darkness. Every once in a while an uncomfortable observation would intrude. I noticed, for instance, that the bumper sticker “Don’t blame me, I’m from Massachusetts” (the only state to go for anti-Vietnam War candidate George McGovern in 1972) did not guarantee more civil behavior on the roads. And a college friend from rural Illinois shared many stories of the basic decency of his small-town, politically conservative neighbors.

In a similar vein, Wilfred M. McClay, in the December 22 Wall Street Journal, relates his own youthful experience managing a political campaign for an energetic, liberal Democrat. After canvassing the district for weeks, the candidate remarked one day to a horrified McClay, “If I’m ever hit by a car, I sure as hell hope that the next guy to come along will be conservative.” Pressed for an explanation, he said, “Simple. A liberal will blame the unsafe conditions on the highways, blame budget cuts and keep driving. A conservative will get out of his car and help.”

My youthful equation of liberal politics and good character has long since been consigned to the dustbin. When the tax return of Al Gore Jr., multimillionaire avatar of the common man, revealed an annual charitable contribution of $250, I was not surprised. Every poor kollel student I know gives many times that to tzedaka in a year. Indeed I would bet dollars to doughnuts that the average charitable contributions of kollel students exceed those of our enlightened Supreme Court justices, despite the latter’s vastly greater wealth.

THOSE SUSPICIONS find confirmation in a recent book by Syracuse University Prof. Albert Brooks, Who Really Gives: America’s Charity Divide. Brooks set out expecting to confirm the “children of light” hypothesis, and came away after 10 years of research proving the opposite. For example, 24 of the 25 states with above average rates of charitable giving were red states in 2004. In states in which President George W. Bush won more than 60 percent of the vote in 2004, the average family gave 3.5% of its income to charity; in states where John Kerry took more than 60% of the vote, the comparable figure was 1.9%.

Brooks found that such factors as political conservatism and having children are positively correlated with generosity and volunteerism. And interestingly, wealth does not predict generosity. Brooks discovered that the working poor are the most generous class. They give far more than middle-class people, and even give 30% more than the rich as a percentage of their income.

BUT EVEN after controlling for all other factors, religiosity, measured by the likelihood of weekly attendance at a house of worship, remains by far the most salient predictor of both charitable contributions and volunteerism. Those who attend a house of worship once a week are 25% more likely to give than those who do so never or rarely. And when they do give, they give four times as much. Nor is the generosity of religious people limited to the religious community. They are 10% more likely to give to explicitly non-religious charities and 25% more likely to volunteer for secular groups, such as the PTA.

In the aftermath of the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina, Rabbi Yitzchak Adlerstein of Los Angeles visited the area and spoke to local residents about volunteers who had spent a week or more in the area helping with the clean-up. Local residents reported that the volunteers were overwhelmingly motivated by religious faith, and that was even true of those who volunteered through non-religious organizations such as Volunteers for America.

Brooks’s finding about generosity as a function of religiosity parallels similar studies of charitable giving and volunteerism within the Jewish community. Political scientist Raymond Legge Jr. concluded, based on a 1999 survey of the giving patterns of American Jewry, “While social justice is a concept stressed most heavily by the Reform movement… the analyses indicate that in terms of financial contributions, this group is least likely to practice it.”

The Orthodox were many times more generous, in terms of total charitable contributions, than their heterodox or unaffiliated brethren, and 50% more likely to volunteer.

WHY ARE religious people more generous? The most obvious answer is the force of the divine command. In addition, religious life tends to be communal in nature. Participation in a community imbues members of that community with a sense of responsibility for others.

Thirdly, religious people are less likely to view their wealth as a function of their superior abilities, and thus as belonging to them as a matter of right. They are ever alert to God’s role in their success. Even when they have been blessed with great abilities, they remain acutely aware that those abilities are just one more “gift,” not something they earned.

Finally, religious people do not view life primarily in terms of the pursuit of physical and material pleasures. Doing that which is pleasing in God’s eyes provides their greatest source of pleasure. They tend to be very family-oriented, and children and grandchildren inevitably require delaying or even denying one’s own material gratification. Because material goods play a significantly smaller role in their lives, the religious are more willing to share with others rather than hoard their money to purchase more material goodies for themselves.

And why does chatter about “social justice” frequently not translate into private deeds? In part because liberal politics often serve as little more than a cheap and effortless way to feel good about oneself. Those who prattle on about the downtrodden Palestinians, for instance, know that they will never be called upon to do anything on their behalf, or bear the cost of the policies they advocate. That will be left to far- away dead Jews.

As George Will points out, anyone can profess all the fine-sounding values he wants. By contrast, virtues – generosity, restraint, discipline, kindness – must be attained, usually with great effort.

When it comes to judging character, it’s actions, not words, that count.

Originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post.

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10 Responses

  1. SM says:

    Community is a incredibly powerful force and I suspect that is so whatever its motivation. I think you could add to your list of reasons the fact that people who are attached to a community have experience of things being done for them by others. Who hasn’t had a Shabbat meal delivered at some stage? So the urge to reciprocate is there. Also – these people tend to be your friends and as a consequence you have a large group of people you can trust. I suspect that outsiders who lack that experience tend to excuse themselves from giving by making reference to the perceived untrustworthiness of either the charity or the ultimate recipients.
    I would be interested to see, amongst the non-givers, what percentage of their giving went to school/college/regiment benevolent fund etc. All of those causes replicate the community which we take for granted.
    And finally, whilst I agree that actions count – that includes allowing people to do their own thing and not being overly prescriptive. Charity can’t ever become a way of buying behaviour. True charity includes granitng people the freedom not to give.

  2. Jewish Observer says:

    “WHY ARE religious people more generous”

    – maybe it’s generous people that are more religious

  3. GB says:

    I can’t speak for the general liberal/Democrat non-Jewish population, but amongst the very liberal, affluent Jewish/Democrat population in which I was raised, the amount of money given to charitable causes was staggering and generous beyond belief. Reform and Conservative Judaism subscribes heavily to the “tikkun olam” concept; it is their raison d’etre (at the expense of Jewish ritual observance). I believe that non-observant Jews are every bit as generous as Orthodox Jews, however misdirected and inappropriate the causes they choose to support. If only these same do-gooders could be convinced to give their well-intentioned donations to Jewish education, they’d be less focused on saving whales and Palestinian terrorists and more concerned with saving and insuring the survival of the next generation of ever-assimilating Jews.

  4. DMZ says:

    “True charity includes granitng people the freedom not to give.”

    Yes, and some day schools need to learn this lesson. But at the same time, it’s entirely appropriate to laud people who do give more than those who don’t.

  5. Shalhevet says:

    To GB:
    When I mention to non-Orthodox Jews, of any affiliation, the fact that I give over 10% of my income to charity, as a matter of course (it’s a commandment in the Torah), the reaction is always shock and – how can you do that? Somehow, it doesn’t seem to me to be the way of most people. This article is discussing percentage of income given, not actual dollars.

  6. hp says:

    “I believe that non-observant Jews are every bit as generous as Orthodox Jews”

    I don’t see Orthodox giving as any reason for self-congratulations- we don’t consider ourselves special for giving charity; it is part and parcel of the fabric of our lives.

    However, the Conservative, affluent, and very liberal people that I interact with think giving 10% is simply lunatic. It’s nice to hear of a non-observant community with different giving habits, but I do not think it’s the norm by any stretch.

  7. Charles B. Hall says:

    This report seems to support conclusions opposite to that of Rabbi Rosenblum:


    When the District of Columbia is included, 9 of the top 10 voted for Kerry; 8 of the bottom 10 voted for Bush. The methodology apparently differs from that cited in Rabbi Rosenblum’s report by adjusting for cost of living, including tax burden.

    I’m not a demographer; I’m a statistician. But I would hesitate before making generalizations based on either report, as Rabbi Rosenblum and some commenters are doing.

  8. katrina says:

    What motivates someone to give charity may not always be noble and pure. Charity could be a way of “buying” a place in heaven or for lessening one’s “punishment”. Charity can be given in order to feel good about oneself or to prove one’s “moral superiority”. It can be a way of creating an appearence of “goodness” thus deflecting any criticisms;like in a court of law one could say, “see how much I give to charity, I can’t possibly be a murderer and a thief!”. Charity can be condescending and an insult to the recipient. The giver is in a “one up” position from the receiver”. It can make the giver feel important. It can make the giver feel kind. Sometimes charity can just be a way for someone to feel useful-which is fine, but it is still self satisfying.
    The highest form of charity is the anonymous kind in which the giver takes no credit. The fact that any group trumpets and brags about their charity makes the charity itself into an ego trip. “See, I’m a child of light and yer not “nyaa nyaa!”. Charitable but certainly not humble.
    Can charity itself be taken as “proof” that capitalism is better than communism? And who cares anyway? Neither of these things are Judaism. I’m all for giving. Better to give tzdakka than not to. I just wouldn’t get all puffed up about it.

  9. Jonathon Ament says:

    As a follow-up to Charles B. Hall comment on stats:

    I’ve been heavily involved in work on the NJPS and for the most part JR’s allegations do not withstand stronger scrutiny.

    It is true that Jews who identify as “secular” or “just Jewish” are on average much less likely to volunteer overall than Jews who identify with a particular Jewish denomination.

    But Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist and Orthodox Jews all score about the same (roughly 50%) in terms of overall volunteerism rates. The main difference is that virtually no Orthodox (4%) volunteer for a non-Jewish organization, while anywhere from 30% to about 50% of the other denomination volunteer totals are efforts for a non-Jewish organization.

    It is true, as JR notes, that attending religious services is strongly correlated with volunteer rates. But this only holds true for volunteerism in the Jewish community, not volunteerism in general (in fact, there’s a negative correlation with the latter).

    Second, on the philanthropy piece:

    Again, Jews who call themselves “secular” or “Just Jewish” are much, much less likely to be philanthropic than other Jews.

    But once again, there’s very little difference between Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews in terms of giving to a Jewish organization (whether Federation or some other kind of more direct or parochial institution).

    The difference is that Conservative Jews are somewhat more likely than others to give to Federation, while the Orthodox are somewhat more likely than others to give to other Jewish organizations (presumably Orthodox on the whole–NJPS did not ask, although it’s probably an accurate assumption).

    Interestingly, Orthodox Jews are about as likely as “secular” Jews or those who call themselves “just Jewish” to give to a non-Jewish cause (a little over 50%). Conservative and Reform Jews are even more likely to do so (about 75%).

    None of these figures (except perhaps the previous paragraph) should be too shocking. Since Orthodox Jews often define their world or community as the world of Orthodox Jewry (or perhaps even a subworld within the “broader” frum world), it’s not surprising that they would devote the majority of their volunteer and philanthropic efforts to that parochial sphere.

    Jews of another denominations have more diversified interests, so that should be–and is–reflected in their volunteer and philanthropic efforts.

  1. October 2, 2007

    […] Religion is not the opposite of reason. One can be religious and rational, and one can (more likely) be atheist and irrational. It is, of course, irrational to believe, as Dawkins does, that the non-religious are more charitable than the religious. Despite all evidence to the contrary, Dawkins believes that the non-religious are more charitable, based on the idea that the non-religious don’t care. This is highly irrational, and it shows that Dawkins’ beliefs are not based on fact or logic. If you don’t know why Einstein believes a certain thing, maybe the problem is on your end. But Dawkins would choose to believe that Einstein is illogical. […]

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