How generous is America?

We give much more as individuals than as a nation

December 27, 2010|By Thomas F. Schaller

The holiday season is a time for giving and giving thanks. We share presents and good will among our friends and family. Heaven-bound prayers are offered for blessings both past and future. These sentiments are typically conveyed on an individual, family or community level.

But as a nation, are we Americans a generous and grateful people?

This is a tricky question to answer — and one for which that those who view us from afar might provide different answers than we might for ourselves.

Money isn't everything; donating one's time is arguably more meaningful. But dollars do matter, and each year Americans give away plenty.

Among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development states, the Unites States gave far more in official developmental assistance (ODA) — about $28.7 billion — than any other OECD country. But America's net donor level relative to our gross national income, about .2 percent, ranks very low among peer nations. The only five OECD countries that met the United Nations' ODA target level of .7 percent are, in order, Sweden and Luxembourg (1 percent), Denmark (0.83 percent), the Netherlands (0.8 percent), and Belgium (0.7 percent).

Simply (skimpily?) put, in absolute terms we give large sums to needy, developing nations (most of the money goes to sub-Saharan African countries), but not relative to our net wealth. Those crazy socialist democracies from dastardly old Europe give a lot more on a proportional basis.

As I've written previously in this space, when surveyed Americans seem confused about how much our nation spends on foreign aid. Respondents regularly express a desire to spend less federal money on aid, but when asked what share of the budget should be spent, the average response (around 3 percent) far exceeds the actual share of federal spending dedicated to foreign aid, strictly defined.

What I mean by "strictly defined" is that certain persons, this columnist included, might very well argue that significant chunks of the State Department and Defense Department budgets ought to be classified as foreign aid, given that the United States shoulders more than its share of diplomatic and military burdens around the globe.

But whatever the definition, government charity to other nations is outwardly-directed spending allocated collectively via national politics. More telling are the charitable sums donated by individuals to domestic organizations. And here Americans are far more generous — and far more pious.

According to summary data collected by the National Center for Charitable Statistics, individuals, foundations or other charitable organizations gave $285 billion in 2008 to non-profit groups. More than 80 percent of this total, about $230 billion, was donated by individuals.

More than a third of all donations go to the nearly 400,000 religious congregations in the country. Educational institutions account for another one-seventh of all monies contributed. Finally, we give of our time, too: More than one quarter of all Americans donate their time as volunteers to some non-profit organization.

Despite the penchant for government bashing in the 30 years since the start of the Reagan revolution, it's worth recognizing that the federal government suffers a tax loss from charitable tax deductions. A recent Congressional Budget Office pegs the five-year estimate for years 2009 through 2013 at $237 billion — or almost $50 billion annually. To put that sum in context, the recently announced federal pay freeze is only expected to save the treasury about $10 billion per year.

With deficit reduction in mind, the Obama administration last year proposed reducing the marginal charitable deduction rates for some of the wealthiest Americans. Non-profit organizations, already suffering the fundraising drag of the recession, complained loudly, and the president backed off.

Readers can decide for themselves whether the taxes Washington must levy to offset deduction losses are justified. And, yes, some people would make charitable donations even absent tax incentives. But let's not kid ourselves: Tax policies encourage Americans to give more than they otherwise would, absent the deduction incentive.

Bah humbug! I've managed to turn a feel-good, end-of-year column about American generosity into a mini-dissertation about U.S. tax policy. Give what you can, and have a happy new year.

Thomas F. Schaller teaches political science at UMBC. His column appears regularly. His e-mail is schaller67@gmail.com.

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