The Voice of the Conservative Movement at Wabash College

What You Do to the Least of These: Charity in America

by Sean Clerget ‘09

Artwork by Austin Rovenstine '10

Artwork by Austin Rovenstine '10

Hurricane Katrina roared into the Louisiana and Mississippi on August 29, 2005, and devastated the region. Less than a week after the hurricane hit the Gulf Coast, the blame game began. Criticism came from all parts of the country but was particularly strong in Washington D.C., as partisan politics joined the mix. Many people placed the blame, and still place the blame, on President Bush for responding slowly and lacking preparedness. It is true that the federal government could have and should have done a better job in responding to the disaster, but there is much more to the story.

All levels of government are to blame for the poor response to Katrina. Not only was the federal government sluggish to respond; state and local government were completely unprepared. State and local governments, which were closest to the situation, should have been the most prepared for such a disaster, but unfortunately they were not. This is something that seems lost on American public opinion. Author D. Eric Schansberg, an economics professor and an adjunct scholar with the Acton Institute, wrote in an article about the aftermath of Katrina, “Anyone who tries to ascribe blame to only one level of government is remarkably blind or politically motivated.”

The federal government received an unfair share of the blame in the media after Katrina. Schansberg says that because it took so much of the blame, it is now trying to take on too much responsibility. The federal government took criticism from many, especially from members of the media, and with that criticism came demands for action and aid on a huge scale. Schansberg commented on this kind of thinking: “Far too many people depend on government far too much. Let me get this straight: government failed at all levels—before, during, and after the disaster—so the solution is to get the government more involved?” It is difficult to see the logic in this sort of thinking. But if government doesn’t do it, then who will?

I believe that the American people are capable of doing what they currently demand of the government. The generosity of the American people is extraordinary and was vital to the recovery after the disaster. There is no reason it couldn’t be the key in the future. In another article published by the Acton Institute, author Ben Sikma wrote: “It is the tendency of the U.N., Western Europe, and in some circles in the United States, to measure generosity by percentage of gross national income (GNI). In today’s diverse, global environment there is a new wave of giving, and it is rising from the private sector.” Ignoring private giving causes a misperception of a country’s charity. The outpouring of support following Hurricane Katrina is well documented. People from all over America sacrificed a great deal to aid those in need by giving money to charitable organizations. Others sacrificed their time and effort to visit Louisiana or Mississippi and help rebuild the communities that were demolished by the storm and its aftermath.

So, private charities do good things, but can they do enough to be fully effective? Are they really better than government aid? Author Karen Woods, as part of the same series of Acton Institute articles, writes: “Government agencies are not designed to understand unique circumstances or to care about personal problems. And government certainly is not equipped to provide total coverage for major disasters like the Gulf Coast hurricanes. Government also pretends to distribute its help in an equitable and even-handed manner, an error of policy that results in waste, fraud, and corruption.”

When people are able to choose where their money goes, they care more about what it does. People get excited and more personally invested in a cause when they get to direct their time and money. Filling out tax forms and sending money off to the government is not a very personal way to help people, it certainly isn’t an engaging process, and most importantly, it’s not very effective.

Louisiana State University surveyed state residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The survey asked participants to rank relief organizations they encountered on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being very effective. The results were as followed:

Church relief groups: 8.1
Non-Profits like Salvation Army and other local groups: 7.5
Red Cross: 7.4
FEMA: 5.3
Federal Government: 5.1
State and Local Government: 4.6

The government had a great deal of resources at its disposal (i.e. our tax money), and yet still failed miserably. However, charitable groups had great success. Imagine if these charitable groups had the resources of the government in their hands. Things may have turned out much differently.

Let’s lessen the role of government in these matters and promote the role of charitable organizations. How can this be done? Well, it would have to be a gradual process in order to make it work. The government will need to commit to promoting charitable organizations. Realistically such a change will be a gradual process. Once the government begins lessening its role, taxes will be incrementally decreased. At the same time, the government ought to engage in a public campaign explaining their strategy and encouraging people to give to charitable groups. Many may argue that people will not give more to charity if we lower taxes. I believe that if government makes it clear that some of these responsibilities being passed on to charitable groups, and therefore more directly into the control of the people closely involved, Americans will respond.

The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University produced a study examining public giving in the United States for the year 2004. These are the most recent numbers gathered before Hurricane Katrina. Charitable giving skyrocketed after the Hurricane, and the Tsunami in Asia of late 2004, but American generosity was alive and well before those disasters. According to the study, in 2004 70.2% of American households gave to charity, and the average gift per household was $2,047. Excluding extremely high income households, Americans gave $161 billion dollars that year. We have a very wealthy nation, but we give a great deal of our wealth and resources back.

Lowering taxes would enable Americans to give even more. One of the main categories that would be affected by tax relief would be households with an income under $50,000 per year. 56.3% of these households gave money to charity in 2004, as opposed to 81.4% of households with an income of $50,000-$99,999. The households earning under $50,000 gave 4.2% of their incomes, as opposed to the next highest group which gave 2.7% of their incomes. What do these numbers tell us? It tells me that those making under $50,000 want to give money to charity but often times cannot afford to. If these households had more money in their pockets, more would be able to give. Not only could this policy increase the amount donated by those already participating, it could increase the total number of households giving to charity.

Various strategies on how to achieve these ideas are possible. Before we can get there though, we need officials who are interested in and dedicated to these ideas. Both a supportive President and a supportive Congress will be needed, and at the moment this seems unlikely. The American people need to step up, take more responsibility, and stop relying on government so much. I hope that people will realize how effective their charitable actions can be, before more government failures bring our nation into a dire situation.


One may wonder if conservatives give more to charity than liberals or vice versa; it turns out that conservatives give more. However, the reason has nothing to do with politics. It has to do with religion. Dr. Arthur Brooks, author of The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism, has done extensive research on who gives more when it comes to American charitable giving and he has found that charity is about values.

He began by examining the charitable giving of two communities, South Dakota and San Francisco. These two communities grabbed his attention because both registered approximately the same average amount donated per household, $1300 per year. He thought this was strange because the two places don’t really have a lot in common. But then he dug deeper. There is a drastic difference in income between the two communities, and when adjusted to show the amount sacrificed per household, the new results are quite different: average families in South Dakota gave 75% more per family per year than average families in San Francisco.

After interviewing charity groups from the two communities, he found that the people he talked to in South Dakota always mentioned religion when they talked about charitable giving. This was not the case in San Francisco. So he looked at the numbers to see if religion really was the determining factor. In San Francisco 49% of households are completely secular, meaning they never attend a house of worship, and 14% attend a house of worship almost every week. In South Dakota 10% are completely secular and 50% attend a house of worship almost every week.

When Dr. Brooks asked people in South Dakota why religious people give more, the most responded that they were taught to give. Many people mentioned tithing, or giving 10% of your income, or simply that they were taught to give to charity as children, and they learned it in church. Religious culture has a strong focus on charitable giving. But when Dr. Brooks asked his colleagues (fellow college professors) why religious people give more, the response he got was overwhelming. He says it was often along the following lines: “They give less. It doesn’t matter what they say; they really give less. And the reason is because religion breeds intolerance. It breeds a hostility to people that are outside of groups, and that is antithetical to the true spirit of charity. No matter what people say, if you really look at the evidence, you’re going to find that religious people in America, particularly extremely religious people—evangelicals, even fundamentalists—give less.”

However, Dr. Brooks continued his research and took many different approaches. He controlled for different definitions of religion. As examples, he considered whether the individual identifies with religion or not, how often he or she attends a house of worship, and how much he or she focuses on their spiritual life. Every single test showed that religion and charitable giving were directly related. Not once did Dr. Brooks find any case where secular people gave more than religious people. He even found that religious people give more to non-religious causes than secular people.

Religious conservatives and religious liberals give at almost an identical rate, though it turns out that approximately three times more conservatives than liberals consider themselves religious. The value of charity has deep roots in religious America, and this charity does a great deal of good for our society.

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