Giving in America: Tis the Season

Posted: Dec 18, 2006 12:00 AM
Giving in America:  Tis the Season

The Christmas season has always inspired me. It’s a time for giving gifts, cherishing family, and reconnecting with old friends. It’s a time for personal generosity and philanthropic giving. It’s also a perfect time to examine the state of charitable giving in America.

Let’s start with what we already know. For one thing, we know that America is still the most generous nation in the world. More Americans give money, and give in larger portions, than the citizens of any other country. In fact, Spain, the most generous nation in the European Union, gives less than half the amount of the average American and volunteers 80 percent less often.

We know that about 90 percent of those who regularly attend a church, synagogue, or mosque give an average of $2,210 per year, based on a median salary of $49,000. Such people total about one hundred million American citizens. Then there are the seventy million Americans who do not attend religious services. They give an average of $642 per year. Among all Americans, including a middle group who periodically attend religious services, 81 percent donate an amount equal to hundreds of dollars a year per person.

We also know that generosity cuts across political lines. Republican or Democrat, it doesn’t matter. The key variable is religious participation. The link is indisputable: charitable giving and religious involvement go hand-in-hand. Giving in America is a part of our national fabric, our national soul—and that soul definitely has religious roots. When the Puritans set foot in what became Plymouth, Massachusetts, they desired to start a new community that would protect and cherish religious freedom. In order to do so they knew they needed to take care of each other along the way. And so the spirit of American giving began, evolving right along side the customs of earning, saving, and investing. Long before the era of big government, Americans survived by sticking together and helping each other along the way. This ruggedly independent yet generous spirit remains the foundation of our vibrant society today; it’s what so impressed Alexis de Tocqueville when he visited America in the 1800s, and it’s what led Arthur Brooks to write a fascinating new book on giving in America, Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth about Compassionate Conservatism.

Brooks notes that Americans still believe that the private sector should be active in solving the problems facing our society. Compared to Asia which has the reputation of taking care of the family as means of charity, and Europe which has a reputation of looking to the state to deliver “charity,” America has a reputation of taking care of the stranger as a means of charity. This philosophy has deep religious roots. Jesus lauds the Good Samaritan in the Gospel of Luke for taking care of a stranger met on the road as if he were family. This religious exhortation took root in American Puritanism and became a part of the habits of the heart that make up much of America. The “caring for a stranger” mentality quickly began to distinguish America from Europe and other cultures.

In America, we’re raised to believe that individualism is a good thing, but also that a society is only as strong as its weakest members. Therefore, providing for the stranger, for the person we do not know by name or even face, is the product of individual initiative, not government edict. The result is a myriad of non-profit organizations spread out all over America. They provide for kids on drugs, support foster children, offer art lessons for the disadvantaged, and operate homeless shelters. This list could go on and on, and let’s not forget that an army of volunteers keeps such operations running.

Yes, the spirit of giving and caring for the stranger is alive and well in America today. We should remain ever-thankful for this heritage of charity, one rooted in religious ideals, tempered by tolerance for opposing viewpoints, and buttressed by a belief that freedom is anchored not only by prosperity, but also by displaying compassion for those in need.

This Christmas and Chanukah season please give pause, give thanks, and then give to others. For me, my favorite cause is the Free Wheel Chair Mission, a non-profit organization that provides the gift of mobility to people trapped in poverty in developing countries. For you, it may be a school, a health care facility, church, or homeless shelter. Whatever the case, know that when you write a check , you are taking part in a hallowed American tradition; one that advances the cause of freedom and accepts the responsibility each citizen has to take part in creating a better future for us all.

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