Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Who Gives More: Liberals or Conservatives?

An op-ed piece by Nicholas Kristoff in the NY Times created a bit of a stir by citing evidence that conservatives give more to charity than liberals. As usual, however, there are lies, damned lies and statistics (or as my colleague Tom Ulen - an economist - once remarked, "give me the data and I'll take it to the basement and torture it until it tells the truth.") Yes, some surveys show that self-identified conservatives give more to charity than self-identified liberals (Kristoff's article cites his sources). But if you exclude giving to churches, it turns out that liberals give more.

Which prompted Ezra Klein to opine that so-called donations to churches are really nothing more than membership fees and hence should not be counted as charity. Well, maybe so - in fact, most donations to churches end up serving the church population - they largely are used to support services and capital expenditures for the congregation. But this is an argument that probably proves too much. I regularly donate to the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Illinois. Why? Well, partly its to make sure that Krannert keeps bringing in the superb performers that I like to hear and buy tickets to. So is my donation to Krannert really "charity" or simply a self-serving, self-imposed fee to make sure that I continue to get services that I value? Is the $20 "suggested" donation to the Metropolitan Museum of Art really a donation or an admission fee?

This argument is not new, of course. One of the central questions that bedevils tax policy and nonprofit governance is what, exactly, constitutes "charity." Some would say that the only thing that should count as charity is redistribution: giving money to help the poor. But Western civilization has long recognized the arts as part of the charitable basket: museums, symphony orchestras, etc. So it seems to me that if you want to start picking on churches, you've got a lot of 'splaining to do when it comes to other kinds of charities . . . I don't think you can call donations to churches "membership fees" without recognizing that a lot of what we classify as philanthropy is self-serving in some way.


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The article does say this:

"According to Google’s figures, if donations to all religious organizations are excluded, liberals give slightly more to charity than conservatives do. But Mr. Brooks says that if measuring by the percentage of income given, conservatives are more generous than liberals even to secular causes."

It does not appear that you give the Mr. Kristof the credit due for acknowledging the very point you seem to use against his article.


Posted by: Jonathan | Dec 24, 2008 6:50:18 PM

You opine the majority of a church's income received from its "members" primarily goes to expenditures for the church itself. Do you have a figure or percentage that you can cite? I'm only asking because it's been REPEATEDLY reported (on other than FOX News, I might add) that religious groups, primarily churches, are the biggest contributor to charitable work in the US and abroad.

I surmise the point of your article was to try to even the playing field to make up for the lack of contributions of idealogues who always SAY they would wish those less fortunate than them would be helped, financially, or otherwise, but who, themselves, are unwilling to part with their own money or time (Joe Biden).

Posted by: Jared | Dec 25, 2008 6:18:29 AM

Jared: data on church finances is hard to come by because they're exempt from reporting requirements that apply to all other exempt organizations.

I've worked w/ church finances in the past, though, and have found their charitable expenditures are a very small part of their overall expenses. You may be right that religious organizations do a lot of charitable work, but we're talking about churches, not religious charitable groups.

Posted by: jpe | Dec 26, 2008 8:38:55 AM

We wrote about this at our blog too because the scant empirical evidence out there about South Asian Americans' giving indicates that they give a great deal to religious organizations (temples, mosques, etc.). One of our goals is to diversify those giving habits so that South Asians become a more integrated part of their local communities. Motivations for giving and "membership" giving versus other types of giving is a tough issue to dictate - I like your Krannert Center example.

Posted by: Archana | Jan 1, 2009 7:01:01 AM

I did a little research, certainly not copious, but something you might like to try doing before you spout your mouth about something.. But the first thing I came across a study done by a group called Campbell Rinker in Valencia, CA. They surveyed 3300 households, found out the political leanings of the households (conservative, moderate, or liberal) and then found out how much they donated to charities other than their churches. Conservatives gave, on average $3255/year, moderates gave on average $2926/year and liberals gave on average $1879/year. I don't know the pooling of the survey, nor the wording of the questions (though I don't think there is a lot of room for controversy concerning the types of questions one could ask on this survey). Frankly, I think that most such surveys will produce the same results. That's a significant difference. It also does not include those same households' donations to churches. Your attempt to belittle such donations, though debatable, is no less reprehensible in that you somehow think the work of churches does no one any good.

Posted by: John Manuola | Jan 8, 2009 8:13:56 PM

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