I've pointed out in recent weeks that the American people are the most generous in the world.
But I was surprised to learn the working poor give a larger percentage of their income than the rich. Last week I did a TV special, "Cheap in America," in which I playfully gave some billionaires a hard time about what they don't give to charity.
Ted Turner is giving $1 billion to the United Nations. He got lots of great publicity for that, and he told me that he'd like to give away more, but he was too poor. "I've given away so much, and lost so much. It's all I can do. I'm doing all I can. I'm worried about the viability of our Social Security. I want to be sure that I have enough money to make it through, you know, my old age, when I finally do retire, at about 95."
But he still has $2 billion left. Isn't that enough? "Not enough! Not in the way inflation -- you know, I was worth $10 billion about four, five years ago, and I lost eight of it, so the other two could evaporate overnight."
Dan Duncan had a different excuse. He's made $7 billion by finding cheaper ways to pipe natural gas and oil from place to place. He and his wife have given millions to charity, but their gifts are only about 2 percent of his net worth.
I suggested that maybe he was "cheap," and he answered: "Sometimes you're better off to hold on to that money longer and make it bigger." His wife, Jan, added, "It takes money to make money so that we'll have more to give away."
That may have sounded cheap to my TV audience, but it's actually a pretty good reason for Duncan not to give to charity. Great business creators like Duncan and Turner waste their skills if they just give money away. They do more for the world by creating businesses. Turner started with 12 employees. By the time he merged CNN with Time Warner, he employed 12,000 people.
Is there a better way to help the poor than by creating jobs -- opportunities for self-improvement? And when businesses make useful products cheaper and more plentiful, that helps the poor more than charity. Discount retailers like Wal-Mart help low-income people tremendously. Would Sam Walton have done as much for the poor by giving all his money to charity? I don't think so.