Monday, March 1, 2010

Overstating American Generosity

You keep reading how Americans are the most generous nation. "Superfreakonomics" states that Americans give 2% of GDP to charity. I'm suspicious that this is overstated. My guess is that most of that is giving to non-profit organizations that aren't strictly charities.

The key example of that is churches. Yes, many churches run soup kitchens, send tents to Haiti, and the like. But they also do a lot of non-need work targeted at their congregations. Is hiring a pastor an act of charity? Purchasing audiovisual equipment? Running a preschool? All of those serve to benefit their congregations, and you can't reasonably call them charitable work.

My suspicion is that the majority of church giving goes to activities like those, and not the soup kitchens, the tents for Haiti, and so forth. In other words, a lot of this charitable giving is really money spent by people to benefit themselves and their immediate community.

Maybe you don't like this example. What about public radio? I'll bet that donations to public radio are considered part of that 2% charitable giving (I assume the numbers come from the IRS). Does PBS feed the hungry or heal the sick? By and large, the benefits flow to the listeners of public radio. Their donations are not generosity so much as self interest.

Update: I read a little further in "Superfreakonomics" and found the authors obliquely hinting at the same point. I guess they wanted to avoid controversy, though, because they didn't go all the way with it.

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