As Barack Obama found out last week, when you run for president you can’t even get away with being a lousy giver to charity. After Mr. and Mrs. Obama released their tax returns, the press quickly noticed that, between 2000 and 2004, they gave less than one percent of their income to charity, far lower than the national average. Their giving rose to a laudable five percent in 2005 and six percent in 2006, with the explosion of their annual income to near $1 million, and the advent of Mr. Obama’s national political aspirations (representing a rare case in which political ambition apparently led to social benefit).
According to an Obama spokesman, the couple’s miserly charity until 2005 “was as generous as they could be at the time,” given their personal expenses. In other words, despite an annual average income over the period of about $244,000, they simply could not afford to give anything meaningful.
Before we dismiss this explanation, it is worth noting that this is not an uncommon upper-income excuse for not giving. According to 2000 data from the Independent Sector (a trade group for nonprofit organizations), among people with above-average incomes who do not give charitably, a majority actually say it is because they don’t have enough money.
You’d think that the only Americans with the nerve to use such an excuse for not giving would be the poor. But in fact, it is the poor — specifically the working poor — who can most teach upper-class misers a charity lesson. The working poor are America’s most generous givers when we measure giving as a percentage of income. Most studies have shown that the working poor tend to give away between four and five percent of their incomes, on average, while the rich give away between three and four percent. (Both groups give away significantly more than the middle class.)
The Obamas got rich in 2005. Their income increased sevenfold from 2004 to 2005, mostly because of Mr. Obama’s book royalties, and stayed very high in 2006 for the same reason. In 2005, another wealthy political couple with significant book royalties was Mr. and Mrs. Cheney, who had a combined income of $8.8 million, largely due to Mrs. Cheney’s books and the couple’s investment income. Just how much did the Cheneys give to charity from their bonanza? A measly 78 percent of their income, or $6.9 million. (No, that is not a misprint.)
This last fact does not generally square with the well-cultivated liberal trope of the blackhearted Cheneys. Unless, that is, you believe that private charity is not an important value that defines one’s character, compared with government taxation and welfare spending (which Mr. Cheney generally opposes, despite the profligate ways of the Bush White House).
In 1996, the General Social Survey asked a large sample of Americans whether they agreed that, “The government has a responsibility to reduce income inequality.” Those who “disagreed strongly” with this statement gave an amazing twelve times more money to charity per year, on average, than those who “agreed strongly.” People disagreeing strongly also gave nine times more to secular causes than those agreeing strongly, and even gave more to traditionally progressive causes, such as the environment and the arts.
Many have told me they interpret these patterns as evidence that proponents of government income redistribution, like Barack Obama, are more comfortable giving away other people’s money than they are giving away their own. I disagree with such an uncharitable assessment, and believe that a better interpretation is that many political liberals simply don’t believe that redistribution is very effective at the voluntary level; rather, redistribution is so important that it should be undertaken at the large-group level as a matter of law.
From this perspective, private charity, while a lovely thing, is still a dispensable extravagance. This might help explain the Obamas’ relatively meager giving before they got rich. Feeling the pinch of student loans and child-care costs, they neglected charity in much the way they might have forgone many other unnecessary luxury gewgaws. Later, with buckets of income from book royalties, they devoted some of it to giving. For many Americans, however, this view of charity as an expendable luxury is anathema. Giving is a necessity, not a luxury — a year-in and year-out necessity.
Which view of giving is correct? The answer is the kind of values question we should hope to debate in this November’s election.
– Arthur C. Brooks, the Louis A. Bantle Professor at the Syracuse University’s Maxwell School, and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is author of Gross National Happiness).
Editors Note: This column has been amended since its original publication. It originally cited information regarding the Cheney tax returns as from a 2006 tax return. The information is in fact from the Cheneys’ 2005 tax return.