Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You: Giving in America

Those of us who think that government has grown too large and overstepped the role it was given in our Constitution believe that many things that the government does today were intended to be the role of private citizens, charities, communities, families and neighborhoods. If we want to reduce the size and power of the federal government, then we have to help make those services redundant.

Most people do not object to a “safety net” role for the government. Although I would argue that we should localize that safety net as much as possible because those closest to the need can best address that need. Part of the reason that our “safety net” is turning into a “nanny state” is because large, centralized bureaucracies are by their nature too far removed to discern the difference between those who can’t help themselves and those who won’t help themselves. (See my blog on “Alice”, the true story of a family that applied to rent an apartment that we own).

Most Americans understand that our social safety net has become bloated, inefficient and sometimes encourages dependence on government programs over self-sufficiency. Still, we all want help for those that need a hand.

ABC News did a story on who gives in America. The results may surprise you.

Some statistics on Charitable giving in the U.S. and worldwide:

From ABC News story on Who Gives in America:

  • Conservatives give about 30% more than Liberals (although they make slightly less money on average)
  • The poor and the rich give more (as a percentage of their income) than the middle class
  • Religious people give more to charity than the non-religious (beyond just giving to their church)

From the Johns Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project

  • Americans give more to charity, per capita and as a percentage of gross domestic product, than the citizens of other nations
  • However, the U.S. comes in 3rd in Volunteerism behind Sweden and the Netherlands
  • Among developed nations, those with higher taxes and bigger social safety nets tend to have lower rates of giving. In charitable giving as a percentage of GDP, nations with cradle-to-grave welfare systems rank far down the who gives in the Johns Hopkins list; Sweden 18th, France 21st, Germany 32nd.
  • Those who give to charity and/or volunteer report being happier than those who do not give or volunteer

If we believe that individuals helping others is the best way to assist those in need, for both the giver and the receiver, we must take an individual role in fulfilling that responsibility. There are so many ways to give. The best ways are the ones that connect us to the person that we are helping. Although I donate to causes that I believe in, the most rewarding experiences I have had are the times that I gave face to face to a neighbor, or on a mission trip to Mexico. Seeing the impact of our time or money is a feeling that cannot be duplicated by writing a check to a charity. Nor can that connection be created by paying taxes that go to social programs.

The reality is that most of us are very busy. So charity plays an important role in enabling giving. I am not suggesting that we stop giving to charity. Indeed, we should do more charitable giving.  When we don’t have time or ability to take our used clothing to the homeless, a charity will come pick it up at our doorstep. We can’t all buy mosquito nets and fly them to a village in Africa to prevent Malaria, but we can donate to the charities that do that.

However, to understand the impact that giving has on ourselves and others, we all need to find ways to get that personal connection from our giving. Donating to the ASPCA via mail will not affect your heart the in the same way as taking an abused dog for a walk at your local animal shelter. That dog cannot lick your face in joy and gratitude though the mail.

If we look for opportunities around us to give directly to a neighbor or friend in need, the impact of that experience makes us more inclined to give in other ways. I challenge you (and myself) to proactively search out those opportunities. You will find that when you hand a poor child a new toy or help an out-of-work acquaintance work on their resume, you will get as much or more from the experience than the person that you are helping. That is the magic of giving: it usually begets more giving. Also, the joy that you get from giving is not dependent on your ability to give. The person that can donate a million dollars to build the new wing of hospital for children with cancer does not get 10,000 times the benefit of the person that who can only save their pocket change for a year to give $100 to their neighbor that quit her job to care for her cancer-stricken child.

More than any election, policy or government program, personal giving can restore this country because it changes the giver.

From one of my favorite movies (based on a true story), The Blind Side:

Friend: I think what you are doing is so great, to open up your home to him. Honey you are changing that boy’s life.
Leigh Anne Tuohy: No, he is changing my life.
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