Where you live and how you give: The geography of generosity

by Ryan Streeter on November 23, 2012. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

Since Thanksgiving and generosity go together, I thought I’d take a minute yesterday to re-read this Chronicle on Philanthropy overview of its research into the geography of giving.

The Chronicle’s main findings are so closely aligned with my personal experience that they struck me as obvious – the stuff of common sense.

Here are the main takeaways:

Middle-class Amer­i­cans give a far bigger share of their discretionary income to charities than the rich. Households that earn $50,000 to $75,000 give an average of 7.6 percent of their discretionary income to charity, compared with an average of 4.2 percent for people who make $100,000 or more.

This speaks to the under-appreciated heroism of the middle class. Talk to the people who work in foster care adoption, and they’ll tell you it’s not the most affluent who adopt at-risk children (i.e., the people who can do so with the least amount of financial strain), but teachers and librarians and nurses. Growing up as a pastor’s kid, I saw first-hand what a lot of people in the ministry will tell you: giving in congregations is driven by the middle, not the wealthiest members that everyone thinks are keeping things afloat.

Rich people who live in neighborhoods with many other wealthy people give a smaller share of their incomes to charity than rich people who live in more economically diverse communities. When people making more than $200,000 a year account for more than 40 percent of the taxpayers in a ZIP code, the wealthy residents give an average of 2.8 percent of discretionary income to charity, compared with an average of 4.2 percent for all itemizers earning $200,000 or more.

Given Charles Murray’s research on how we’re segregating by income, this is troubling. It’s not surprising, though. As one who’s lived a good bit of his professional life in fairly affluent ZIP codes (doing my part to help bring the mean income down!), I’d say that all the cocktail parties I’ve attended to benefit this or that cause seem more like philanthropic exhibitionism on the part of the host compared to roll-up-the-sleeves-and-contribute mentality of more middle class communities. Put the rich together, and they become fairly stingy despite what they tell themselves about their generosity, given how each time they give the dollar amounts look impressive.

The eight states where residents gave the highest share of income to charity went for John McCain in 2008. The seven-lowest ranking states supported Barack Obama. 

No surprise here. This comports with Arthur Brooks’ research. It also comports with my experience. I’ve lived most of my professional life in very blue places, and the generosity – to the previous point – in those neighborhoods and communities doesn’t come close to what I experienced growing up in a very red middle American community. People whom the left would characterize as right-wing reactionaries were the people I saw volunteering at the homeless shelter, giving their own belongings to families in need, rushing out in the middle of the night to help a family in crisis. They really do live out their belief that it’s their job, not the government’s, to alleviate poverty and help people improve their lives.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1153953325 Rick Hammond

    Great link. After 12 years living here, Indianapolis continues to amaze me.