For some reason, Americans have a reputation for being greedy. Perhaps it’s because so many people have been conditioned to associate capitalism with greed. The truth is, the United States is the most generous nation in the world. This chart shows the top ten countries ranked by private charitable contributions.
Arthur C. Brooks, Director of the NonProfit Studies Program at Syracuse University, conducted a study on charitable giving a couple of years ago, and published the following findings.
70 percent of Americans give to charity each year, and do so at far higher levels than people in other developed nations: three times as much as the British, four times as much as the French, and seven times as much as the Germans. …
Why are Americans so much more generous than our European counterparts, many of whom look down on us as being mercenary and crass? Do we give more just because we have more to give? That may be part of it. But the graph above ranks countries by giving, as a percentage of GDP, showing that Americans don’t just give more overall; we give proportionately more, relative to our income, than people in other countries.
In the same study cited above, Professor Brooks also researched relationships between how much individuals give to charity and their socio-political perspectives. Based on the results, he proposed a possible explanation for why Americans are more generous in our private charitable contributions than Europeans are.
Those who believe that government should redistribute income are far less likely to give voluntarily to help others. This helps explain why, compared to the United States, European states … see low levels of private giving.
Perhaps those who feel it’s the government’s role to help the needy don’t contribute as much privately because they believe the government has it covered. Presumably, they figure they’re already contributing through taxes, so it isn’t necessary to donate privately as well. Yet, in this country, the people who believe the government spends too much on social welfare programs pay the same amount of taxes, but still feel impelled to give more of their own private resources to help those who are truly in need.
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.”
— Arthur C. Brooks
This raises the question of whether those who think it’s up to the government to take care of the poor would be inclined to contribute more to humanitarian causes if the government were not assuming that role. If they paid less in taxes, would they donate proportionately more to charities? If so, we might be able to do a better job of helping the truly needy by eliminating government welfare programs and reducing taxes.
Private charities tend to be more efficient than government programs. (See Feeding the Needy or Bolstering the Bureaucracy.) Given the same amount of money, it’s likely that private charities could address the problem more effectively than the government does. If the government were to get out of the charity business, perhaps the folks who think we’re not doing enough would contribute more of their own time and money, instead of always crusading for higher taxes.