The story received the briefest of mentions during last night’s evening news; if the viewer was not tightly focused on the broadcast, he/she would likely have missed it altogether. Even trying to follow-up on the piece via the TV network’s website proved to be futile, as no mention of the story was to be found. Yet for all its anonymity, the small report represents major questions about our economics, our priorities and our very lives in this country. The tagline for the story? “Wealthy Americans Are Giving Less of Their Incomes to Charity, While Poor Are Donating More.”
The Chronicle of Philanthropy found that Americans who earned at least $200,000 gave nearly 5% less to charity in 2012 than in 2006. Unlike their wealthier counterparts, low- and middle-income Americans — those who made less than $100,000 — gave 5% more in 2012 than in 2006, the Chronicle found. The poorest Americans — those who took home $25,000 or less — increased their giving by nearly 17%. (The Chronicle analyzed Internal Revenue Service data from Americans who itemized deductions, including charitable gifts, in 2006 and 2012. It measured giving relative to adjusted gross income. The data included about 80 percent of individual donations to charity in those years.)
The statistics raise a good many questions, to be sure, but one that has recurred to me time and again is this: which came first? Was it the achievement of significant wealth that was followed by a growing lack of empathy for those who are less-well-off , or has it somehow been a case of less caring individuals able to rise to the top of the economic continuum and demonstrating their relative lack of empathy from there? In either case, it makes a statement about wealth disparity that is not very attractive. Just what are the wealthy thinking about when they decrease their largesse at the very time when it has been needed the most?
One might surmise that a decrease in giving is simply a reflection of an economic downturn that pinched everyone. Less income generates less giving. But there are a couple of flaws in that rationale. First, the wealthiest citizens were relatively unaffected by the gyrations of the 2008 collapse; their wealth is placed in instruments that are comparatively insulated from disaster. Second, that rationale is blunted by the fact that middle and lower-income citizens were giving more during the same period. In any case, it seems to be true that the hungrier among us were the most willing to share, while the best-fed among us tended to keep their leftovers for themselves.
Another explanation might be that the wealthiest in the economy are the ones who can best access resources for a longer-term outlook as to where the economy seems to be headed. If their outlooks suggested that the collapse was likely to be a longish interlude, they were in the positions to pull back on their charitable giving with foresights born of strategy and planning. That protocol is much more likely to result in a detached calculation for self-preservation, rather than any emotional response to fellow journeymen who are suddenly in need. In any case, it seems to be true that the most emotional or responsive among us were the most willing to recognize the stewardship we owe to one another, while the coolest among us tended to look away.
I suppose a third analysis might suggest that, well, this is oftentimes how the wealthy became wealthy, by keeping a focus on their resources to maintain and grow them, to avoid distractions and place their assets in investments with tangible returns. Maybe so. In that line of thinking, I suppose that the middle and low-income givers would simply be considered not very smart. After all, the return on many charitable gifts is hardly discernible. No wonder these folks occupy the lower rungs of the economic ladder. By all prudent measures, it really makes no sense to increase one’s sharing at a time of economic depths. And yet, the last affluent among us have done just that. Why?
There are at least two types of charitable giving. There is giving which is intended to strengthen the social support for those who find themselves in desperate circumstances, like when we send gifts to the Red Cross for disaster relief. There’s also giving which is institutional in its objectives, like when we send gifts to universities, hospitals or to cultural institutions. The less affluent donor base tends to support the former group; the wealthier donors tend to patronize the latter. When economic stresses come to bear on the charitable habits of donors, there is far less hesitation and pain in withdrawing support for an institution than for cutting off human aid; funding a new wing of a building can wait, while hungry children cannot.
There are also at least two reasons for charitable giving. Some may give to further a cause, an ideal or the work of an institution in whom they believe strongly. Such philanthropy has driven untold developments in individual health and well-being through the centuries. Others might give from a posture which suggests that, at some level, we are responsible for one another to whatever extent politics, law and geography permit, and that a voluntary “redistribution of wealth” is not only a good thing, but an essential component of a society’s health and well-being. As well as its character.
I don’t pretend to know why philanthropy among the wealthiest people has declined in recent years, especially since we are supposedly well into a recovery mode. I can only make a guess as to why less affluent members of our society have increased their giving during that same timeframe. But there is something important and meaningful in the statistics, whatever that lesson may be. For such a tiny story on the evening news, it surely contains enormous questions about priorities, conscience and motives, enough to make me stop and examine my own sense of stewardship….