American Generosity

As a follow-up to the last post:
Americans are "stingy." This was the accusation hurled at the U.S. almost exactly one year ago today by Jan Egeland, United Nations Undersecretary for Humanitarian Affairs, immediately after the Asian tsunami disaster.

Even by U.N. standards, it was a particularly absurd anti-American slur--although it no doubt expresses the view of many foreign elites, who have come to believe that government is the only true source of goodness and charity. In the weeks and months that followed the tsunami, American citizens dug deep into their wallets, donating some $1.78 billion to the relief effort in Asia--dwarfing the contributions of other developed nations. Since October Americans have also contributed $78 million to assist the casualties of the Pakistan earthquake.

And lest there be any doubt that the Good Samaritan ethic is alive and well in America, consider the latest totals of charitable giving to help the New Orleans victims of Hurricane Katrina. The Center for Philanthropy at Indiana University announced last week that the total value of private donations in response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita has reached $3.12 billion, thus "setting what is believed to be a record for a single disaster and recovery effort." This tsunami of aid dollars was donated in just three and a half months.

More astounding still is that this Gulf Coast aid is only a little more than 1/100th of what Americans donate to charities and churches every year. The quarter trillion dollars a year that Americans provide to sustain the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, the American Cancer Society, their local churches, universities and such is greater than the entire GDP of most countries. Bill and Melinda Gates have given more dollars to fight AIDS and malaria in Africa than have many nations. And all of this comes on top of the $1 trillion in taxes that Americans pay each year to support government income-transfer and benefit programs.

This generosity in money and volunteerism has been a hallmark of American society since its earliest days. Some 150 years ago Alexis de Tocqueville lauded the impulse of Americans (in contrast to Europeans) to set up churches, schools, orphanages, hospitals, homeless shelters and other civic aid organizations throughout the land.

* * *

There is a mythology in the philanthropic world that Americans are motivated to give by the somewhat selfish pursuit of a tax deduction. But a surprisingly large percentage of charitable gifts aren't even itemized on tax forms. Moreover, the Tax Foundation has provided compelling evidence that over the past 50 years--as tax rates on the highest earners have fluctuated from a high of 90% to a low of 28%--American giving has hardly deviated from 2% of personal income. In the 1980s, as tax-rate reductions reduced the value of the charitable tax deduction by about half, the level of charitable giving nearly doubled. This suggests that charitable giving would continue to flourish under a flat-rate tax system with no deduction.

No comments: