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Stinginess Beyond Measure

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Oseola McCarty, a poorly educated African-American laundry woman in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, gave more to charity in one gift than our Vice-President has given in his lifetime. Last week's release of the Bidens' tax returns reveals a troubling character weakness. Stinginess. Unrelenting shameless stinginess.

During the campaign, both Biden and Obama released their tax returns dating back to 2000. As far as I know, my radio show was the only media outlet to discuss all the candidates' returns for what they reveal about character and spirit. Generous people are happier than stingy people, more compassionate than stingy people, and more selfless than stingy people. Generosity matters. It reveals who you are.

As April 15 arrived this year, Obama and Biden released their tax returns for 2008. Two observations: Biden is stingy, and Obama only began giving when he knew the public would be watching.

First, consider Oseola McCarty, who lived a simple life in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, doing other people's laundry to eke out a living. She lived in a small home with no cable television, only getting air conditioning in the final three years of her life. Her Bible was taped together to keep all the books intact. She saved and gave $150,000 at age 87 to help poor kids go to the local college, the University of Southern Mississippi, since she had only been able to finish the 6th grade herself. She said she figured the kids trying to get an education needed the money more than she did. Generous giving gave her life purpose and joy.

On the other hand, consider Vice-President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill, who have given about 0.2% of their income to charity in each of the years between 2000 and 2008. Less than ½ of one percentage point given to persons in need, to ministries of their Catholic Church, to agencies that serve the poor and the hurting. In fact, this year they gave a total of $1885 to charity, marking the first time they had even given a sum larger than $1000 for the entire year. In every year of this decade, the Bidens' income has exceeded $200,000, and for the first time they gave away more than $1000 of their own money. Astonishing stinginess. Record-setting, in fact.

Their stinginess makes Barack and Michelle Obama appear generous. The Obamas gave away 6.5% of their considerable income ($2.6 MM) in 2008. They are showing progress. This percentage of giving (6.5%) marks their own personal best in the past decade. In fact, they gave less than 1% away in 2000, 2001, and 2002, only breaking into the paltry 1% category in 2003 and 2004, when he began to run for public office. Then, upon launching a bid for the presidency in 2005, their giving rose to 4.7%, and then 6.1% in 2006, and 5.8% in 2007.

So to the Obamas, here's a “Well done!” for continuing to increase their percentage given to charity; however, it is important to note that the Obamas now are only tied for last with President Reagan for the least generous presidents since 1969. Reagan and Obama are so far below the giving levels of Carter, Clinton, and both Bushes, that comparison is nearly impossible. The Reagans did grow forward in personal generosity in their second administration, so there is hope for the Obamas' growth in grace. People can and do change (although Biden appears reluctant to do so).

Sadly, one has to wonder why the Obamas' giving only began to reach any meaningful level once they began to run for public office. Was it because they knew it would now be scrutinized by the public eye?

Generous giving has changed my life. In fact, the happiest, most joyful people I encounter are also the most generous. There is a direct correlation. Stinginess makes miserable, critical people. Generosity breeds joy, selflessness, and grace. Jesus was right: Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Your heart follows your money. Not vice-versa. Be generous and your heart will grow outward; be selfish with your money, and your heart will become increasingly Grinch-esque.

Even more remarkable, your level of income has nothing to do with it, but the percentage of income given does. Oseola McCarty is no exception; she is the rule. Poorer people actually give a higher percentage of their incomes to charity than wealthy persons. AND persons who give higher percentages of their incomes, regardless of their wealth level, report higher levels of life happiness and satisfaction. My own experience, in my twenty years as a pastor, confirms these studies. Joyful people are generous people. Stingy people are critical and selfish.

I could not help but notice the contrast this week. We now have the stingiest presidential team in the past forty years while a new American record for generosity appears to be being set. Over the past month, nine American colleges and universities, including the University of Southern Mississippi, have received anonymous gifts totaling over $45MM. Purdue University received the largest ($8MM), while UNC-Asheville, Penn State-Harrisburg, Norfolk State, and others all received gifts of more than $1MM.Many of these gifts are the largest ever received by these schools. A record-setting occurrence of generosity.

Even more amazing each school has no idea who made the gift. And they were required to sign statements binding them never to investigate who had generously supported them and invested in their scholarship funding. The giver(s) want to remain completely anonymous.

The contrast could not be more clear. Our President gives only when he knows others will be watching. And our Vice-President does not give at all. Meanwhile, a generous American, perhaps an individual or a group or a foundation, gives in abundance with a great desire not to be known. The focus is on the gift and the good done.

Jesus would be proud, I think. “So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

Clearly, generosity is alive and well in America. For the evidence, one need only look to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, rather than to Washington, D.C.

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