Joe Biden and American Charity

by Byron York
What his tax returns mean.

It has become a common practice, when a presidential candidate releases his or her tax returns, for reporters and pundits to examine how much the candidate gave to charity. In September 1992, for example, when the Washington Post reported that Al Gore, then the Democratic candidate for vice president, had released his tax returns, the second paragraph in the story noted that out of income of $183,558, Gore “donated $1,727 — less than 1 percent — to charity.” Other stories about other candidates routinely included figures on charitable giving.

Last Friday, Sen. Joseph Biden, the Democratic candidate for vice president, released his tax returns for the years 1998 to 2007. The returns revealed that in one year, 1999, Biden and his wife Jill gave $120 to charity out of an adjusted gross income of $210,979. In 2005, out of an adjusted gross income of $321,379, the Bidens gave $380. In nine out of the ten years for which tax returns were released, the Bidens gave less than $400 to charity; in the tenth year, 2007, when Biden was running for president, they gave $995 out of an adjusted gross income of $319,853.

Here is a chart of the Bidens’ giving for the years covered by the tax returns:

                    Adjusted 
                    Gross Income              Charity

1998             $215,432                      $195

1999             $210,797                      $120

2000             $219,953                      $360

2001             $220,712                      $360

2002             $227,811                      $260

2003             $231,375                      $260

2004             $234,271                      $380

2005             $321,379                      $380

2006             $248,459                      $380

2007             $319,853                      $995

Total             $2,450,042                    $3,690

To take Biden’s worst year, 1999, one percent of his adjusted gross income would have been $2,100. One half of one percent would have been $1,050. One quarter of one percent would have been $525. One eighth of one percent would have been $262. And one sixteenth of one percent would have been $131 — still a bit more than the Bidens gave.

To take Biden’s best year, 2007, one percent of his adjusted gross income would have been $3,190. One half of one percent would have been $1,595. One quarter of one percent would have been $797 — a figure Biden surpassed by nearly $200.

Looking at the ten-year total of Biden’s giving, one percent would have been $24,500. One half of one percent would have been $12,250. One quarter of one percent would have been $6,125. And one eighth of one percent would have been $3,062 — just below what Biden actually contributed.

“The average American household gives about two percent of adjusted gross income,” says Arthur Brooks, the Syracuse University scholar, soon to take over as head of the American Enterprise Institute, who has done extensive research on American giving. “On average, [Biden] is not giving more than one tenth as much as the average American household, and that is evidence that he doesn’t share charitable values with the average American.”

A spokesman for Biden, David Wade, says the figures on Biden’s tax return do not reflect the true extent of his giving. “The charitable contributions claimed by the Bidens on their tax returns are not the sum of their annual contributions to charity,” Wade said in a statement to NRO. “Like most regular churchgoers, they contribute to their church, and they also contribute to their favorite causes with their time as well as their checkbooks, whether it’s [Jill] Biden’s volunteer work with military families or the Biden breast-health initiative, or the way in which the family pitched in driving supplies to the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, or the ways Sen. Biden has supported charities that help women, police, and veterans.”

Wade also suggests that Biden, who is famous for being the least wealthy member of the U.S. Senate, simply doesn’t have piles of money to give. “Like a lot of families that put three kids through college and have an aging parent move in with them, the Bidens aren’t divorced from the realities of everyday life,” Wade says. Still, Wade continues, “finding ways to give back is important to them.”

So far, at least, Biden’s tax returns have attracted little attention. On Saturday, the Washington Post published a 468-word story on the subject, the main point of which was that the release of Biden’s returns was an effort by the Obama campaign to pressure the McCain campaign to release Sarah Palin’s returns. After a few brief paragraphs on Biden, the rest of the story concerned Palin, reporting that “progressive groups” are eager to find out whether Palin “skirted tax obligations” on the per diem payments she received from the Alaska state government. The story made no mention of Biden’s charitable giving.

But for people who have studied the impressive generosity of the American public, there is news in Biden’s returns. “I’m not going to say he’s a bad guy,” says Arthur Brooks. “My only point is that his values are not typical American values when it comes to charitable giving. Americans in general are very generous.”