Americans giving less, despite economy's gains

October 19, 1994|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- Despite positive economic trends, Americans are giving less money to charities and volunteering less of their time than during the recession at the start of the decade, a new study indicates.

Among the 73 percent of Americans who gave at all last year, the average donation was $880, down from the $978 average reported in 1989, according to the survey, "Giving and Volunteering in the United States 1994."

That represents an 11 percent drop from 1989, when adjusted for inflation. The average giving for all Americans last year was $646, down from $734 in 1989.

Lingering effects of bad economic times may be to blame, said Sara Melendez, president of Independent Sector, an umbrella group for 880 charitable organizations that sponsored the survey.

"Americans seem to be more insecure about their economic futures," Ms. Melendez said. "I guess it hasn't come home to everyone that the economy is getting better."

Some 73 percent of those interviewed for the survey said they were worried about having money in the future. In 1991, that number was 67 percent.

Financial worries may also be part of the reason that fewer people have time to volunteer to charities. Forty-eight percent of Americans volunteered for some cause in 1993, down from the 54 percent in 1989.

The report stopped short of branding Americans as stingy, saying that the proportion of Americans giving remains stable at 73 percent. It's the amount that they are giving that is declining.

The size of contributions may increase as people realize the economy is improving, Ms. Melendez said.

She added that even with fewer donations, American charities are the envy of charities around the world.

"By all indicators, the United States is very generous," she said. "Organized philanthropy is at a level that doesn't exist anywhere else in the world."

But there are ways to improve, she said.

For instance, donations might be boosted if tax laws were changed to allow a person to deduct charitable contributions if they file a short form, rather than an itemized income tax form, Ms. Melendez said. In 1993, 67 percent of taxpayers used the short form.

"Nonitemizers have no tax incentive to give, and that makes an enormous difference in the amount they contribute to charity," Ms. Melendez explained.

When Americans do part with their hard-earned dollars, it is usually religious organizations that benefit. Americans contribute $402 per household to religious groups, compared to $74 for education groups, which make up the second-largest class of recipients.

Volunteers also are more likely to work for religious groups. Fifty percent of people who volunteered time for charities helped religious organizations.

The survey of 1,509 adults over 17 years old was conducted in April and May by the Gallup Organization for Independent Sector. The error rate for the total sample is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

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