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Research desk responds: How generous is the United States?

By Dylan Matthews

wintday asks:

how do Americans compare with the people of other countries as to charitable contributions, in total, per capita, in proportion to GDP or some other measure of wealth. And if possible, please break out contributions to churches, which, I think, are in large part payment of the cost of mutual member benefits, rather than "charity" which benefits the larger community.

A comparison of non-military foreign aid (international "charity," if you will) would also be interesting. And if you can, note aid which is truly disinterested from aid which is tied to purchasing donor goods.

I'm afraid there's no data that breaks out churches, and I'm not sure, contra wintday, that would be wise. Some church contributions go to spending benefiting the individual congregations, but some go to organizations like Episcopal Relief & Development or Catholic Relief Services that do on-the-ground charity work. The UK's Charities Aid Foundation did a comparison (PDF) of nations' giving as a percentage of GDP and, sure enough, the United States comes out ahead by a wide margin:

national_giving.png

The foreign aid numbers are less favorable. The OECD's Official Development Assistance (ODA) is the standard metric for comparing government-provided non-military foreign aid. Here are how members of the OECD's Development Assistance Committee compare (PDF):

foreign_aid_rates_in_oecd_countries.png

Now, charitable giving and foreign aid aren't interchangeable goods. Many individual donors give to domestic charities, for instance, and foreign aid allows for large-scale projects that even the wealthiest charities could not manage alone. So, for example, the United States’ high charitable giving rate compensates not just for its low international giving but for its smaller domestic welfare state. Nonetheless, these numbers are an interesting reflection of how comfortable each country's people are with channeling their generosity through government institutions.

By Ezra Klein  |  June 25, 2010; 12:58 PM ET
 
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Comments

IIRC, some European countries give churches a portion of tax revenues. Maybe Spain or France? I believe part is for the upkeep of churches and other buildings that are part of the national heritage and are tourist attractions. This is a dimension that we don't have. (China also supports Buddhist temples, and maybe others, for the same reason. And there is a great deal of support from other Buddhist countries at major Buddhist sites in China, India and elsewhere.) There are lots of non-functioning monasteries that have been bought by individuals or foundations and are kept going as tourist sites in France and Spain at least. And the few remaining synagogues in Spain.

The one comparable thing we have here is the Spanish missions in California. I think a few are State Parks (San Juan Bautista, Santa Cruz, maybe Carmel) and non-functioning as churches. Some are run by foundations , and the really functioning churches like Mission Dolores are still in the hands of the Catholic Church.

Posted by: Mimikatz | June 25, 2010 1:24 PM | Report abuse

Don't forget - there's also the issue of evangelical churches passing goods to each other repeatedly to inflate their donation numbers. By the time a single pallet makes it overseas, the full value will have been "donated" by dozens of churches.

Posted by: lol-lol | June 25, 2010 1:47 PM | Report abuse

I'm not sure that's the correct interpretation. For one thing, as Mimikatz notes, many European countries provide official assistance to religious organizations. But in the US, we instead provide a tax break to private contributors to such organizations. So comparable levels of public support show up here as very different levels of charitable giving. Or, rather, that might be what's going on, and without taking differences in public spending and tax treatment into account, we can't be sure.

On the foreign aid issue, its unfortunate that you either didn't look for or didn't find data on the degree two which such aid is tied to purchases from donor country companies. Such tied-aid is not only common, its a major reason why the Nordic countries can sustain political support for a high level of giving. Not the only reason, but a major one.

Posted by: rwclayton7 | June 25, 2010 1:53 PM | Report abuse

What if we throw Dylan Matthews into the mix: if Dylan had given 90% of his personal gross [national] income to foreign aid, he'd be at the top of the charts -- and his effort should be rewarded [the "widow's mite", to borrow a phrase].

But is the 90% of Dylan's GNP as valuable as, for example, 90% of the GNP of the United States? Honestly, is there a foreign nation that would give a rat's [behind] if Dylan gave 100% of his GNP? From a consumer point of view, I'd be considerably more enthusiastic about a donation of 1% of the US GNP than a 90% donation of Dylan's GNP... but an uninformed public might just say "Oh, look at the pretty chart" without ever considering the facts.

Posted by: rmgregory | June 25, 2010 1:57 PM | Report abuse

Can you show the actual dollar amount for the Foreign Aid, in addition to it as a percentage of GDP?

Also, do you have a list of countries which are the biggest recipients of foreign aid, both in dollars and as a percentage of their GDP?

Posted by: jnc4p | June 25, 2010 2:07 PM | Report abuse

I would be curious what happens if you exclude education giving in the US. A huge chunk of US giving is education, and primarily in the form of alumni giving to their alma mater.

Posted by: NicholasBeaudrot | June 25, 2010 2:20 PM | Report abuse

I also vote for seeing the actual dollar amount. Comparing by percentage of GDP may appeal to an abstract ideal of fairness, but, in reality, I think the US would be at or near the top of that bottom graph in terms of real dollars. That is, a tiny sliver of our GDP is worth more than a big chunk of Sweden's GDP. In terms of real dollars. Which is not an inconsequential matter.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | June 25, 2010 2:40 PM | Report abuse

I also vote for seeing the actual dollar amount. Comparing by percentage of GDP may appeal to an abstract ideal of fairness, but, in reality, I think the US would be at or near the top of that bottom graph in terms of real dollars. That is, a tiny sliver of our GDP is worth more than a big chunk of Sweden's GDP. In terms of real dollars. Which is not an inconsequential matter.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | June 25, 2010 2:40 PM | Report abuse

I apologize for the double posting. I only pressed the button once, honest-to-gosh.

That being said, I also wanted to note that "the issue of evangelical churches passing goods to each other repeatedly to inflate their donation numbers" wouldn't be unique to evangelical churches, per se, or the US, so such skewed numbers probably exist to a similar degree in the numbers of other countries and in other categories of charity.

Posted by: Kevin_Willis | June 25, 2010 2:42 PM | Report abuse

This was one of the least impressive, shallowest, most dismissive research desk responses ever.

"Some church contributions go to spending benefiting the individual congregations, but some go to organizations like Episcopal Relief & Development or Catholic Relief Services that do on-the-ground charity work."- yes, but is it 50/50? 10/90? I've seen it stated that most of U.S. charitable giving is through churches, so this is a hugely significant question.

Posted by: JohnRose | June 25, 2010 2:45 PM | Report abuse

I realize this is OT, but the silence here about Weigel is rapidly approaching deafening.

Posted by: gcedwards10 | June 25, 2010 2:49 PM | Report abuse

Can someone help me reconcile the narratives on Weigel?

Conservative bloggers have been simultaneously arguing that Weigel was a liberal plant so good riddance while decrying liberals for leaking the email to sabotage the career of a rising conservative journalist.

Posted by: lol-lol | June 25, 2010 3:05 PM | Report abuse

I think that that the raw amount and the amount per person and the amount as a proportion of GDP are all relevant metrics. Yes the US gives the most in raw dollars, but it is also the largest economy by orders of magnitude. If we are looking at the amount of the budget of a country that is devoted to foreign aid as a measure of that country's support of helping other countries, then the amount as a proportion of GDP makes sense.

Posted by: srw3 | June 25, 2010 3:13 PM | Report abuse

I agree re: cutting out the sham of churches and giving to Harvard and your kids private school, etc.

Posted by: AZProgressive | June 25, 2010 3:29 PM | Report abuse

International comparisons of charitable giving are an old argument of anti-welfare conservatives. A lot has been written about this, including a lot of self-congratulatory half-truths (e.g. Who really cares, by Arthur Brooks). The problem is that figures are simply not comparable because charity in the US supports many functions that other countries consider public infrastructure to be funded by tax money. That includes universities, libraries, museums, to name a few. Some European countries, Germany among them, also fund churches with (a lot of) tax money (this is semi-voluntary since tax-payers who officially leave the church will be exempted).

I don't wish to diminish the generosity of many Americans. There is a lot of genuine generosity, not least among low-income groups (and then there are the big donors who get libraries and university chairs named after them; their giving is welcome insofar as that library otherwise might not have been built but to call it "charity" is absurd). But international comparisons of "generosity" are pointless. The cultural context is totally different. American grow up financing school excursions with bake sales. They are often required to do "volunteer" service. They watch their parents write checks during church service, knowing that everybody will notice those who don't. They grow up steeped in a culture in which giving and volunteerism are socially expected almost to the point where they aren't voluntary any more. Case in point, tipping the waitress or bartender is not regarded as a discretionary decision - it is mandatory. The waitress simply couldn't survive on the salary alone.

Posted by: carbonneutral | June 25, 2010 5:03 PM | Report abuse

By specifying non-military, does that mean that the US military's work in Haiti is not included in these numbers?

Posted by: tomtildrum | June 25, 2010 5:35 PM | Report abuse

i find carbonneutral perspective here compelling (as is the arthur brooks cite) but i wouldn't completely dimiss the relevant differences b/w charitable giving and assumed government coverage, although recognizing the similarities is also important.

an interesting question: what does it mean to be loose with "publicly funded" "giving" but more stingy with "voluntary" giving? maybe it doesn't mean much...but then again i can see good and bad tendencies on both sides. (e.g., certain voluntary donations benefit closed community groups to the exclusion of others for what we might consider malignant or at least non-praiseworthy motives; on the other hand, certain willingness to donate public funds suggests a willingness to spend other's money along with a civic mind.

looking to foreign aid without accounting for defense coverage isn't so compelling for me, but i guess the defense part might be more self interested? (its all government aid)

Posted by: stantheman21 | June 25, 2010 5:40 PM | Report abuse

Thanks for the charts on charitable giving and foreign aid, Dylan.

But you passed on breaking out churches, and I think that is important.

I have prepared tax returns professionally, and I've been struck by how little people give to charity, even people with substantial incomes, apart from donations to their church. There are exceptions, to be sure---now and then there is a return, often by people of modest means, showing numerous gifts of small amounts to a variety of charities, and I like to imagine those generous people sitting around their dining room table in the evening, carefully budgeting for charity and planning how to allocate their funds. But that's not typical, in my experience.

Another example: I am aware of a neighborhood church which recently built a gymnasium for the use of its members and their children---full basketball court, and the like. Expensive project, and those who contributed the funds would have claimed a large amount as a "charitable" gift. But, of course, such an expenditure is not "charity" as we usually think of it; rather, it is simply a group of people contributing funds to build a facility for their mutual benefit.

And the same is true for amounts spent on constructing and maintaining the church building itself, and the salaries and expenses of pastors and other staff. Items like these are quite a large proportion of a typical church budget. Yes, as you point out, a portion of a typical church's budget also goes to true charity. But, how much? I did a quick search and found "Your Church" magazine online, which surveyed some 150,000 churches, and found that, typically, a church spends 42% of its budget on payroll, 20% on building expenses, and 16% on programs for members---that's at least 78% that appears to be member services rather than "charity."

The chart you posted showed that Americans "gave" 1.67% of GDP. If, say, 1/2 of that is to churches, and 3/4 of that amount is for member services rather than charity, then the actual amount given to charity is only 0.2% of GDP---a rather less impressive number. (Of course, to compare with other countries, a similar adjustment would have to be made for their figures.)

But these are merely my anecdotes and surmises; I was hoping you could provide more reliable information.

At the end of your piece you drew some conclusions about high charitable giving compensating for lower public services, and about American "generosity." Well, you can't draw such conclusions, can you, unless you know what portion of total "giving" actually goes to charity, as opposed to the mutual benefit of the donors.

Surely there must be some good numbers out there---if not actual data at least reliable estimates. Care to give it another shot?

Thanks.

Posted by: wintday | June 25, 2010 5:41 PM | Report abuse

Sorry, on my last post my math was off: The overall charitable giving would be 1/2 the amount in the chart (0.8%) plus 0.2% by churches, totaling about 1.0%. Confirms the need for hard numbers, rather than amateur guesstimating.

Posted by: wintday | June 25, 2010 5:48 PM | Report abuse

wintday's points deserve endorsement: the US is idiosyncratic in its extremely broad definition of charitable giving, and the significance of that for the annual tax return.

The Cato Institute is a 501(c)(3) 'educational institute', and as such, donations are tax-deductible. So is the Center for American Progress.

Posted by: pseudonymousinnc | June 25, 2010 6:48 PM | Report abuse

"This was one of the least impressive, shallowest, most dismissive research desk responses ever."

I disagree, although when you consider the fact that the Research Desk feature is only about one week old, this really is not much of an insult.

Thanks for doing the research, Dylan. Our ranking as percentage of GDP has hardly changed since I was in college, way back in the 70's.

Posted by: Patrick_M | June 26, 2010 12:19 AM | Report abuse

Church donations - fundamental/basic operating and construction costs = EFFECTIVE charitable contributions.

Posted by: edmigper | June 26, 2010 1:46 PM | Report abuse

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