The United States donates far less of its national income to official development assistance than any other industrialized country. At just 0.18 per cent of national income, the U.S. aid effort is less than half that of Britain, France and Germany, and more than five times less than Sweden, the world’s most generous donor of official development assistance to needy countries.
Among the 30 relatively wealthy members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the United States also ranks last in the proportion of national income allocated to government spending on welfare and unemployment insurance. But does it follow that the people of the United States are singularly lacking in care and compassion for the less fortunate?
“After considering the evidence, it is clear that the stereotype of stingy Americans just doesn’t hold up. The American government is not the only giver. When we look at the overall charity of Americans, we quickly see that we are an extraordinarily generous nation, by international standards.”
Many critics think so. In 2001, Clare Short, the British International Development Secretary, went so far as to denounce the United States for allegedly “turning its back on the needy of the world.”
There is no basis for such accusations. Like so many other left-wing critics, Short failed to appreciate that in the United States, government spending on the needy is supplemented by extraordinary private charity.
Arthur C. Brooks, a professor of public administration at the University of Syracuse, has examined this issue in his book, Who Really Cares?: The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism. With regard to foreign aid, he points out that in 2002, the $10 billion which the United States contributed to official development assistance was augmented by $13 billion in other forms of government aid and an enormous $50 billion in private charity for less developed countries. Altogether in 2002, the people of the United States donated about $200 per person — 0.5 per cent of their national income — to international aid.
Americans are also remarkably generous in supporting worthy causes within their own country. Regardless, many people in Europe, Canada and other rich countries harbour the smug assumption that they are collectively far more generous than the people of the United States, although there is actually much better reason to believe that the converse is true – that the people of the United States are far more generous in volunteering their money, time and talents to help the needy both at home and overseas than are the people of any other industrialized country.
In a series of annual reports over the past several years on generosity in Canada and the United States, the Vancouver-based Fraser Institute has consistently found that Americans donate much more money to charity than do Canadians. Specifically, in the latest of these reports, the authors state: “In 2005, Americans gave 1.77 percent of their aggregate personal income to charity, resulting in a total of US$182 billion in donations. This rate of giving is more than double that of Canadians, who gave 0.75 percent of their aggregate income (Cdn$7.8 billion in total) to charity in 2005.”
The people of the United States are also far more generous than Europeans. Citing the best available data, Brooks relates: “Even accounting for differences in standard of living, average Americans gave more than twice as high a percentage of their incomes to charity as the Dutch, almost three times as much as the French, more than five times as much as the Germans, and more than 10 times as much as the Italians.”
An international survey on volunteering in 1998 likewise found that the people of the United States are more generous than Europeans in volunteering their time for both religious and non-religious causes. And here, too, the degree of American exceptionalism is striking. While the survey reported that 41 per cent of the people of the United States volunteered annually for nonreligious causes, only 29 per cent of the population did so in Sweden, 24 per cent in Britain and a paltry 13 per cent in Germany.
Brooks sums up: “After considering the evidence, it is clear that the stereotype of stingy Americans just doesn’t hold up. The American government is not the only giver. When we look at the overall charity of Americans, we quickly see that we are an extraordinarily generous nation, by international standards.”
What accounts for the exceptional generosity of the people of the United States? Part of the explanation is political ideology: On the basis of his extensive research, Brooks discovered, to his surprise, that liberals and socialists who think that government should equalize incomes give less of their money and time to charity than do conservatives who are not obsessed with equality.
Within Canada and Europe, liberals and socialists predominate. Most of these people seem to think that charity begins and ends with voting for governments that promise to give away other peoples’ money to help the poor.
Within the United States, there is a substantially larger proportion of conservatives than in other industrialized countries. These people understand that the mark of true charity is not to rely on the government, but to volunteer one’s own time and money for worthy causes.
Regardless, in determining levels of private charity, a much more important factor than political ideology is religious conviction. Brooks cites a survey of the population of the United States in 2000, which revealed that religious people – defined as those who attend church nearly every week – were 25 percentage points more likely to give to charity (91 per cent compared to 66 per cent) and 23 percentage points more likely to volunteer (67 per cent compared to 44 per cent). Furthermore, while these religious people enjoyed exactly the same average annual family income ($49,000) as secular people, they gave away “about three-and-a-half times more dollars per year, on average ($2,210 versus $642). They also volunteered more than twice as often (12 times per year, versus 5.8 times).”
It might be supposed that religious people only appear to be more generous, because they have been browbeaten into pouring money into the collection plates at church on Sunday. But that is not the case. Brooks found that in comparison to secular people, religious people are 10 percentage points more likely to give and 21 percentage points more likely to volunteer for completely secular, charities like the United Way or a home-and-school board.
Religious people are also more apt to engage in random acts of kindness. For example, survey data indicate that if you drop your wallet on the sidewalk, you are far more likely to get it back if it is found by an observant Christian or Jew rather than a secularist.
Also, the generosity of religious people transcends differences in political ideology. Religious liberals give significantly more time and money to charity than do secular liberals, although religious liberals are not so generous as religious conservatives.
Brooks sums up: “Religious people are far, far more charitable than secularists, no matter what their politics. But while religious conservatives are extremely common, religious liberals are a fairly exotic breed. Liberals are far more likely to fall in the ‘secular’ category than the ‘religious’ category, which is one big reason why liberals tend to look uncharitable.”
It’s no coincidence that the United States is exceptional for both religiosity and generosity. Among the 32 countries which took part in a survey of religious behaviour and attitudes by the International Social Survey Programme in 1998, the United States proved to be far and away the most religious as no less than 23.4 per cent of the population indicated that they attended church at least two or three times a month. The corresponding proportion of regular church goers was 18.7 per cent in Italy, 11.7 per cent in Australia, 11.4 per cent in Canada, 7.8 per cent in Britain, 6.6 per cent in Sweden and 5.6 per cent in France.
Christians, of course, are not perfect. All have sinned and fallen woefully short of the divine perfection.
Nonetheless, Brooks has advanced compelling evidence to establish that in the United States as elsewhere, observant Christians are far more likely than secularists to volunteer their money, time and talents for worthy causes. And the reason for the exceptional charitableness of these Christians is obvious: People in the pews hear and respond to the admonitions of Christ that there is no better way to express our love for God than to serve others without counting the cost or expecting anything in return.
Rory Leishman is a freelance journalist in Canada. He is the author of Against Judicial Activism: The Decline of Freedom and Democracy in Canada (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2006).