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256 pages
Nov 2006
Basic Books

Who Really Cares? America's Charity Divide-- Who Gives, Who Doesn't, and Why It Matters

by Albert C. Brooks

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Is Compassionate Conservatism an Oxymoron?

We are the Folk Song Army,
Every one of us cares.
We all hate poverty, war and injustice,
Unlike the rest of you squares.
Tom Lehrer, “The Folk Song Army”1

Like most universities, mine is flanked by a neighborhood where a lot of students and faculty live. I walk through this neighborhood each day on my way to work. It is pleasant and relatively quiet, but far from homogeneous. The diversity of race, ethnicity, and religion is one of the reasons the university neighborhood is an interesting place.

But one way in which the neighborhood is not at all diverse is politics. Liberal political views are far more common here than they are in the general population, and this was never more obvious than during the run-up to the 2004 presidential election. The normally mellow neighborhood took on a hard edge as political bumper stickers and yard signs popped up everywhere. “Regime Change Starts at Home,” read one sign, overtly comparing President George W. Bush to the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who had recently been ousted by American forces under a policy dubbed “regime change.” In a display of patriotic irony another exhorted: “Defend America: Defeat Bush.” By far the most common sign around town, however, was produced by a local liberal activist group. It bore the unironic slogan, “Bush Must Go! Human Need, Not Corporate Greed.”

Strident political messages are fairly unremarkable in this—or any other—university neighborhood, but one fact made these striking: New York State was uncompetitive in the 2004 election. John F. Kerry, the Democratic challenger, had led Mr. Bush by wide margins since the beginning of the campaign, and he took the state-wide election by 19 percentage points—more than a million votes. In other words, the neighbors were vigorously campaigning in what amounted to an uncontested election.

It was as if the campaigning had a purpose unrelated to the election. After all, “Human Need, Not Corporate Greed” is unlikely to win over many Republican voters. It is difficult to imagine some lost political conservative happening into the university neighborhood and, upon reading the slogans, undergoing a sudden conversion: “It’s true! Human need is more important than corporate greed—I don’t know why I never realized it before!” The real function of the signs, I believe, was to display the virtuousness of the bearers while lambasting the selfishness of President Bush and his supporters. The signs were just one more opportunity to reinforce the stereotypes of conservative selfishness and liberal generosity.

These are, perhaps, the most common stereotypes in our modern American political discourse: The political left is compassionate and charitable toward the less fortunate, but the political right is oblivious to suffering. As I have already confessed, this stereotype once characterized my own beliefs. If you had asked me a few years ago to sum up the character of American conservatives, I would have said they were hard-headed pragmatists who were willing to throw your grandmother out into the snow to preserve some weird ideal of self-reliance. Hardworking, perhaps—but certainly not generous. In contrast, I would have told you that even though some liberal sentiments and policies were ill-conceived, they generally emanated from a fundamental sense of compassion and charity toward others.

These stereotypes are common not just among the politically uninformed; plenty of experts adhere to this worldview as well. For example, the noted linguistics scholar George Lakoff, author of the bestselling book about political discourse Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, theorizes: “The conservative moral system . . . has as its highest value preserving and defending the ‘strict father’ system. . . . Meanwhile, liberals’ conceptual system of the ‘nurturant parent’ has as its highest value helping individuals who need help.” That is, charity is a natural by-product of the politically progressive mindset, and it is passed on in liberal families—but not in conservative families.2

Some have even argued that conservatism stems from childhood personality problems. In 1969, for example, two psychologists at the University of California at Berkeley evaluated one hundred Berkeley-area preschoolers. Decades later, they asked the subjects about their political opinions. The researchers found that the politically liberal young adults in this group had been the more resourceful, autonomous, expressive, and self-reliant children. In contrast, the young adults that turned into conservatives had been judged as children to be rigid, easily offended, “visibly deviant,” and susceptible to guilt feelings. Such findings might appear consistent with a psychological link between liberalism and compassion toward others—as well as a link between conservatism and selfishness.3

After the 2004 presidential election, vast regions of the country were dismissed as selfish—because they had voted Republican. An essay published by the online magazine Slate, “The Unteachable Ignorance of the Red States,” argued that conservative “red state” America is irredeemably uncharitable, but “blue state” communities, which voted in greater part for John Kerry, tend to be good and compassionate and are thus fodder for red-state predators: “The blue state citizens make the Rousseauvian mistake of thinking humans are essentially good, and so they never realize when they are about to be slugged from behind.”4

Politicians have milked these stereotypes for everything they are worth. General Wesley Clark, a Democratic candidate for president in 2004, stated it succinctly in this attack on George W. Bush: “The only charity [to which Bush has] given is . . . big business and the very rich.” Mr. Bush is not the only conservative political leader labeled as personally uncharitable. Nearly twenty years after the end of his presidency, many still vilify Ronald Reagan for his supposed lack of generosity and compassion. Whether or not it is an ad hominem substitute for a substantive criticism, it is still common to hear in the mainstream news media, as one prominent newspaper columnist stated, that Reagan was “the most antipoor, antiblack, and antidisadvantaged [president] in the latter half of the 20th century.” Shortly after Reagan’s death in 2004, the Baltimore Chronicle published an article subtly titled “Killer, Coward, Conman: Good Riddance, Gipper!” The author wrote that Reagan’s values were “union busting and a declaration of war on the poor and anyone who couldn’t buy designer dresses.” He added, “It was the New Meanness, bringing starvation back to America so that every millionaire could get another million.”5

Liberals don’t stop at accusing conservatives of simple selfishness—they accuse them of ungodly selfishness. In November 2005, John Kerry lambasted conservative policymakers for the way they “give” to some and “take” from others. And he did so in explicitly Christian terms: “There is not anywhere in the three-year ministry of Jesus Christ, anything that remotely suggests—not one miracle, not one parable, not one utterance—that says you ought to cut children’s health care or take money from the poorest people in our nation to give it to the wealthiest people in our nation.” That is, conservative lawmakers violate the basic premises of Christian charity in proposing cuts to government social welfare spending. In December 2005, Jim Wallis, the liberal Christian writer and political advocate, took this a step further in response to Republican budget cuts to social programs: “[Christian conservatives] are trading the lives of poor people for their [political] agenda. They’re being, and this is the worst insult, unbiblical.” He went on to quote Isaiah 10:1–2: “Woe unto them that decree unrighteous decrees, and that write grievousness which they have prescribed, to turn aside the needy from judgment, and to take away the right from the poor of my people, that widows may be their prey, and that they may rob the fatherless!”6

Liberals are not the only ones who accept the stereotype of conservative selfishness. Some conservatives often embrace it as well. For example, in 2000, George W. Bush, then running for the presidency, used the label “compassionate conservative” to describe his proposed approach to governance. He proposed this as an innovation—as if he were going against the grain of conservative tradition. “Like traditional conservatism,” his domestic policy advisor explained, “compassionate conservatism assumes that the marketplace is the best way to deliver value. But compassionate conservatives also recognize that the prosperity created by the marketplace has left many Americans behind and that government has a responsibility to reach out to those who are at the bottom rungs of the economic ladder.”7

Politicians on both sides cried foul. A Democratic Party spokeswoman asserted, bluntly, that “compassionate conservatism is an oxymoron.” But many conservatives rejected the idea as well: Dan Quayle, the former vice president, called the label “silly and insulting,” and “code for surrendering our values and principles.”8


The conventional wisdom runs like this: Liberals are charitable because they advocate government redistribution of money in the name of social justice; conservatives are uncharitable because they oppose these policies. But note the sleight of hand: Government spending, according to this logic, is a form of charity.

Let us be clear: Government spending is not charity. It is not a voluntary sacrifice by individuals. No matter how beneficial or humane it might be, no matter how necessary it is for providing public services, it is still the obligatory redistribution of tax revenues. Because government spending is not charity, sanctimonious yard signs do not prove that the bearers are charitable or that their opponents are selfish. (On the contrary, a public attack on the integrity of those who don’t share my beliefs might more legitimately constitute evidence that I am the uncharitable one.)

To evaluate accurately the charity difference between liberals and conservatives, we must consider private, voluntary charity. How do liberals and conservatives compare in their private giving and volunteering? Beyond strident slogans and sarcastic political caricatures, what, exactly, do the data tell us?

The data tell us that the conventional wisdom is dead wrong. In most ways, political conservatives are not personally less charitable than political liberals—they are more so.

First, we must define “liberals” and “conservatives.” Most surveys ask people not just about their political party affiliation but also about their ideology. In general, about 10 percent of the population classify themselves as “very conservative”; and another 10 percent call themselves “very liberal.” About 20 percent say they are simply “liberal,” and 30 percent or so say they are “conservative.” The remaining 30 percent call themselves “moderates” or “centrists.” In this discussion, by “liberals” I mean the approximately 30 percent in the two most liberal categories, and by conservatives I mean the 40 percent or so in the two most conservative categories.

So how do liberals and conservatives compare in their charity? When it comes to giving or not giving, conservatives and liberals look a lot alike. Conservative people are a percentage point or two more likely to give money each year than liberal people, but a percentage point or so less likely to volunteer.9

But this similarity fades away when we consider average dollar amounts donated. In 2000, households headed by a conservative gave, on average, 30 percent more money to charity than households headed by a liberal ($1,600 to $1,227). This discrepancy is not simply an artifact of income differences; on the contrary, liberal families earned an average of 6 percent more per year than conservative families, and conservative families gave more than liberal families within every income class, from poor to middle class to rich.10

If we look at party affiliation instead of ideology, the story remains largely the same. For example, registered Republicans were seven points more likely to give at least once in 2002 than registered Democrats (90 to 83 percent).11

The differences go beyond money and time. Take blood donations, for example. In 2002, conservative Americans were more likely to donate blood each year, and did so more often, than liberals. If liberals and moderates gave blood at the same rate as conservatives, the blood supply in the United States would jump by about 45 percent.12

The political stereotypes break down even further when we consider age: “Anyone who is not a socialist before age thirty has no heart, but anyone who is still a socialist after thirty has no head,” goes the old saying. And so we imagine crusty right-wing grandfathers socking their money away in trust funds while their liberal grandchildren work in soup kitchens and save the whales. But young liberals—perhaps the most vocally dissatisfied political constituency in America today—are one of the least generous demographic groups out there. In 2004, self-described liberals younger than thirty belonged to one-third fewer organizations in their communities than young conservatives. In 2002, they were 12 percent less likely to give money to charities, and one-third less likely to give blood. Liberal young Americans in 2004 were also significantly less likely than the young conservatives to express a willingness to sacrifice for their loved ones: A lower percentage said they would prefer to suffer than let a loved one suffer, that they are not happy unless the loved one is happy, or that they would sacrifice their own wishes for those they love.13

The compassion of American conservatives becomes even clearer when we compare the results from the 2004 U.S. presidential election to data on how states address charity. Using Internal Revenue Service data on the percentage of household income given away in each state, we can see that the red states are more charitable than the blue states. For instance, of the twenty-five states that donated a portion of household income above the national average, twenty-four gave a majority of their popular votes to George W. Bush for president; only one gave the election to John F. Kerry. Of the twenty-five states below the national giving average, seventeen went for Kerry, but just seven for Bush. In other words, the electoral map and the charity map are remarkably similar.14

These results are not an artifact of close elections in key states. The average percentage of household income donated to charity in each state tracked closely with the percentage of the popular vote it gave to Mr. Bush. Among the states in which 60 percent or more voted for Bush, the average portion of income donated to charity was 3.5 percent. For states giving Mr. Bush less than 40 percent of the vote, the average was 1.9 percent. The average amount given per household from the five states combined that gave Mr. Bush the highest vote percentages in 2003 was 25 percent more than that donated by the average household in the five northeastern states that gave Bush his lowest vote percentages; and the households in these liberal-leaning states earned, on average, 38 percent more than those in the five conservative states.15

People living in conservative states volunteer more than people in liberal states. In 2003, the residents of the top five “Bush states” were 51 percent more likely to volunteer than those of the bottom five, and they volunteered an average of 12 percent more total hours each year. Residents of these Republican-leaning states volunteered more than twice as much for religious organizations, but also far more for secular causes. For example, they were more than twice as likely to volunteer to help the poor.16

Surely Jimmy Carter would have been surprised to learn that the selfish Americans he criticized so vociferously were most likely the very people who elected him president.


These results may surprise you—they certainly surprised me. Many people will object to these conclusions, so let’s address some of the counterarguments.

One could argue that my definition of charity is too narrow, and that by focusing only on voluntary giving I have excluded the most significant means by which Americans transfer their assets to the poor: taxes. Certainly, liberals frequently support government social welfare policies that (they believe) improve the lives of many Americans. Indeed, 48 percent of self-described liberals in 2002 said the government spends too little on welfare programs (compared with just 9 percent of conservatives who said this). Isn’t support for welfare programs a kind of charity?

I argue that it is not. American liberals and conservatives live together in a democracy, and public policies apply to both groups equally. Liberals usually believe that we spend too little on social welfare programs; conservatives usually believe that we spend too much. Which group is right is beside the point. Our prevailing policies reflect the will of the voters, more or less, and one person’s viewpoint will not bend policy much unless it is shared by a sufficient number of fellow citizens. I am not more or less compassionate simply because I support taxing wealthy people, nor if I am dissatisfied with the adequacy of government social programs. Although outrage over the callousness of our public policies toward the poor may produce a sense of moral correctness—and may be justified—it will not relieve anybody’s suffering. Worse yet, if moral outrage is only a substitute for private charity, the needy will become worse off than before.17

One might argue that unless I consider one’s giving motives, I will confuse conservative giving with “true” charity. For example, can I really call it “charity” when a Republican investment banker donates money to the Metropolitan Opera because he wants to enhance his social standing? George Bernard Shaw put it this way: “Most of the money given by rich people in ‘charity’ is made up of conscience money, ‘ransom,’ political bribery, and bids for titles. . . . One buys moral credit by signing a cheque, which is easier than turning a prayer wheel.” In other words, if some—perhaps most—conservative giving isn’t really altruistic, maybe we shouldn’t count it as charity.18

This kind of logic has been invoked in America throughout its history. Andrew Carnegie, the millionaire industrialist and philanthropist of the late nineteenth century (he died in 1919), was criticized for his supposedly uncharitable charity. Carnegie stated in his famous essay “The Gospel of Wealth” that “the man who dies . . . rich dies disgraced.” It is ironic that he died very rich. But one cannot say that his “disgrace” was for lack of effort. During his lifetime, Carnegie gave away more than $350 million ($4 billion in today’s dollars) for the creation of 2,509 libraries throughout the English-speaking world. Not good enough, in the minds of many. One liberal charity expert dismisses the giving of Carnegie and others as “the conversion of vast amounts of wealth accumulated during America’s ‘Gilded Age’ by conservative, anti-labor, laissez-faire businessmen into ‘clean money.’” That is, the sort of giving practiced by Carnegie and is nothing more than a means of expiating the guilt that comes with extreme wealth.19

But who knows what motivates anyone? It is an act of rank hubris to dismiss a charitable act on the mere supposition that the motives of the giver are somehow impure. Social scientists have identified a multiplicity of giving motives, including the “warm glow” one feels from giving, the provision of goods for one’s own social group (such as a church), guilt, duty, social pressure, or the pursuit of status. And researchers conducting laboratory experiments on human subjects have even found what looks suspiciously like real altruism—giving to others whom they do not know, and will never meet.20

Ultimately, however, the giver’s motive is irrelevant. Charity depends on behavior, not on motive. Looking for motives leads to the nonsensical argument that someone who gives nothing but supports the idea of helping others is more generous than a person who donates to charities and causes but who has no apparent great love for mankind. Although this argument might have theological merit, it is not useful for understanding private generosity and its benefits for society. (And it sounds suspiciously like an excuse not to write a personal check.)

A third argument against the idea that conservatives are actually generous is that much conservative giving doesn’t aid “truly needy” people: It mostly goes to churches and upper-crust nonprofits such as universities and symphony orchestras. The political left harbors a common belief that gifts are not really charity if they do not relieve poverty or promote social equality. No better example of this view was on display than in November 2005, when the New York Times devoted a special section to “giving.” The front page of the section featured a clever graphic in which a cooked fish on a silver platter was being uncovered—but all the flesh was absent and there were only bones. The clear implication was that American giving (undertaken to a large extent by wealthy and religious people—many of whom are conservatives, of course) may look like a feast, but it is nothing of the sort. In the lead article, titled “What Is Charity?” the Times reported that American philanthropy was “turning away from Americans most in need of charity.” This assertion came about because even though charitable donations in America had increased over the past fifty years, the share of donations going to human service organizations (such as soup kitchens and homeless shelters) had fallen. Larger percentages had gone instead to organizations that allegedly serve donors’ interests, such as symphony orchestras, elite hospitals, and religious organizations. This giving, the argument went, was not really charitable because it did not help America’s needy.21

This argument distorts the facts. First, the explosion in total dollars donated in America has more than made up for a lower percentage given to human services: Even with population growth, the inflation-adjusted, per-capita amount given by Americans to human service charities was 14 percent higher in 2004 than in 1960. Second, over the same period, the percentage of the American population living in poverty fell by half, and the amount of real federal government payments to the poor increased by more than 500 percent. In other words, although there still is need in the United States, it has decreased over the last fifty years—but private charity to alleviate this need has not. Finally, real private giving to all causes in America increased five-fold from 1955 to 2004; this means that more and more of the organizations helping the underprivileged, as well as the rest of us, are funded through private donations. In short, the argument about giving to the wrong causes is factually incorrect (but common nonetheless).22

But what if it were true that conservative people are giving only to houses of worship and elite nonprofits? Would this make the giving less valid? Certainly, some on the left believe that the object of charitable giving matters crucially. The American political left has, for example, attacked the low-cost retail giant Wal-Mart (founded by Sam Walton) with near-religious zeal of late, scrutinizing and criticizing every part of the company’s business practices, including its corporate philanthropy and the giving of Walton’s family. In 2005, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), a liberal advocacy group, issued a report condemning the company and the family’s charitable giving to causes such as school voucher movements and conservative think tanks as a façade for a “conservative political agenda and personal financial gain.” According to the report, “the Waltons’ and Wal-Mart’s philanthropy deserves more scrutiny than praise.” The NCRP doesn’t believe the Waltons are charitable because it doesn’t like the causes they support.

This kind of argument is hopelessly subjective and dangerously arrogant. No doubt most people think their causes are better than everyone else’s. Conservatives think that donations to the Heritage Foundation are better than those to the American Civil Liberties Union; atheists believe donations to churches are a waste of money (or worse), and so it goes. But it is unwise for individuals or groups to dismiss the sacrifices of other Americans lest their sacrifices be dismissed as well. Every American should think about the cause or causes that matter to him or her. And different Americans will come up with different answers. Some will give to soup kitchens, some to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We should be thankful for these differences, which are the reason Americans support such a broad range of programs, from inner-city renewal to universities to the great museums. Social programs are desperately needed, of course, but symphony orchestras and private universities are important, too. Most Americans would regret the depressing bleakness that would result if every service in culture, education, religion, and research were sacrificed in exchange for wider support for basic human needs.


When it comes to private charity, conservatives have the upper hand over liberals—we know this. It might be tempting to stop here, because this finding so roundly refutes the common political wisdom. However, this isn’t the end of the story. Just because conservatives tend to give more than liberals doesn’t mean that ideology causes this difference. When we hold all personal characteristics constant, people of differing politics are usually not distinguishable by how they give. This means that political ideology by itself does not drive charity differences; rather, the things that go along with political beliefs account for most of the differences we see between ideological groups.

Conservatives and liberals differ in lots of ways, of course. But four lifestyle and worldview differences—described in the next four chapters—explain most of the reasons conservatives are usually more generous than liberals. These reasons are the real story behind the giving differences discussed in this chapter.

So should we care about political differences in charity? Indeed we should, because political ideology is a dominant feature of America’s cultural landscape; many people holding strong political opinions might change their attitudes when they are aware of the facts. First, liberals of good will can use the evidence presented here to update their views on giving and stop belittling the charity of their conservative brethren. Second, charitable and potentially charitable liberals might see this information as a call to arms, and give more as a result. Finally, these facts can help to answer the use of charity as a weapon of progressive rhetoric and so strengthen the accuracy and fairness of political debate in America.