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Sorry, I Gave at the IRS Office
by Brian O'Connell
18 December 2003

A recent study by the Catalogue for Philanthropy shows that, despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth over how conservatives treat the poor, liberals are cheap.

Humorist P.J. O'Rourke once said that God was a Republican and Santa Claus was a Democrat.

I can't vouch for the former but would wager that St. Nick, given his benevolent nature, would grumble over being compared to such a Grinch-like political class.

Why? Because it turns out that, despite their solidarity with the working class, and despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth over how conservatives treat the poor, liberals are cheap. You know -- the kind of people who throw nickels around like manhole covers.

Exhibit "A" in defense of that notion can be found in domestic charitable-giving trends. A recent series of annual studies by the Boston-based Catalogue for Philanthropy found that states where bedrock conservative tenets hold sway continue to top the list of charitable givers. Compiled every year, the index ranks charitable giving, state by state, by U.S. citizens and companies. In fact, the index accounts for the amount of wealth that citizens and corporations in all 50 states can give, and how much they actually do give, to charities on an annual basis.

The good news is that in 2002, the Catalogue for Philanthropy reports that charitable giving held up fairly well, despite chronic economic woes, especially among individual charitable givers.

The bad news, for Democrats at least (and for hard luck Americans who could use their help), is that affluent states like Massachusetts (44), New Jersey (48) and Virginia (37) rank at the bottom of the index, outpaced by less well-off states like Mississippi, Arkansas and South Dakota, which top the index in 2002.

It's no one-year wonder, either. From 1997 through 2001, the study showed that Bible Belt states like Utah, Mississippi, Louisiana and Oklahoma ranked in the top-tier of the organization’s "Generosity Index." But supposedly enlightened and decidedly prosperous states where liberal political attitudes flourish are nowhere near the top of the nation's most generous benefactors ­ and haven't been for years.

In fact, liberal Meccas like Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island habitually rank among the bottom of the list (it's only to fair to mention that New York City has proven to be an exception to the rule. Charitable giving has risen significantly in the area in the aftermath of September 11, 2001). Massachusetts, where left-leaning politicians cannot bring themselves to utter the "R" word without prefacing it with terms like "mean-spirited" and "hateful," finished dead last in 1999 and among the lowest every year since. Imagine Ted Kennedy's home as the stingiest state in the union.

What gives? Or, in the case of the great liberal strongholds, what doesn't give? Evidently, when it comes to feeding hungry children, caring for the disabled and providing some dignity for the weak and poor, "Christian zealots" from the Republican right walk the walk. While it's true a family with $100,000 in tax-addicted Massachusetts has less discretionary income than a comparable family in Kansas, and thus may give less per capita, the gap is disturbing. It is particularly unfortunate given the national media's disinclination to give conservatives any credit for lending a hand to the less fortunate.

Further fanning the flames is the apparent reluctance of wealthy Americans to part with their money while poorer citizens give generously. According to the Generosity Index, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Michigan rank at the bottom again last year even though they are three of the wealthiest states. States like Arkansas, Utah, Mississippi and other Bible-Belt states invariably top the list each year.

A computer analysis of recent tax returns by the Chronicle shows that contributions varied widely both by income level and by where they lived. Among returns of taxpayers with adjusted gross incomes of less than $20,000, those who itemized deductions gave an average of more than 10% to charity -- although few taxpayers in that income bracket itemize. Among the wealthiest Americans -- those earning $200,000 or more -- the average charitable deduction was about 3.6% of their total income. Most of those taxpayers do itemize. The smallest percentage deductions were among those who earned $75,000 to just less than $200,000. Of those who itemized, the average deduction was 2.6% of income.

The liberal response to this issue is predictable. If you live in a traditionally high-income, high-tax state like Massachusetts or New Jersey, local governments, through higher taxes, are taking the responsibility of caring for the needy. True, there's a much broader safety net of secular institutions in affluent, left-leaning states. In less affluent states, people give more to churches than their wealthier counterparts and churches pass on those contributions to the needy.

That scenario may be true, but it also feeds into the long-lamented cry by conservatives that liberals live by a code of "do as I say, not as I do."

Why else would citizens of wealthier states not contribute more to charity? Geography, for one. The Northeast's apparent frugality might be a result of being compared to heavy religious contributions in the poorer Southern states. The Chronicle has noted that the most generous people tend to live in states with high numbers of evangelical Christians. Others say big-city dwellers like those in Chicago or Boston are constantly inundated with telemarketers looking for contributions -- and not all of them on the up-and up. Once you have been burned by an unscrupulous company purporting to represent a needy charity, it is easy to rationalize that your taxes are more than enough for society's neediest. It's also easy for critics to say such rationalization is nothing more than a cop-out.

So, faced with the new realities of charitable giving, what's a liberal to do? Most likely the usual -- deny, obfuscate and paint the enemy as "extremists." But when it comes to charitable contributions, the only thing extremist about conservatives is the higher amounts of money they give to the less fortunate.

Brian O'Connell is a Doylestown, Pennsylvania-based
freelance writer with 12 years experience covering business news and trends
. He is the author of The 401(k) Millionaire and CNBC Creating Wealth.  His latest book is Build Your Own Mutual Fund.

Email Brian O'Connell

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