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Almsgiving, all $300 billion of it

Almsgiving, along with fasting and intensified prayer, is one of the three traditional Lenten practices enjoined on all Catholics by ancient tradition.  So it might seem an odd moment to reflect briefly on just how much almsgiving Americans already do. But perhaps a review of some remarkable data will spur those who are already in the game to do better in our charitable giving—and encourage those who aren’t yet giving to do so.

A few months back, my friend Adam Meyerson, president of the Philanthropy Roundtable, gave a lecture on “The Generosity of America” at Michigan’s Hillsdale College (itself entirely supported by tuition and philanthropy, as it accepts no government money whatsoever). Adam began by noting that the media generally notice Americans’ charitable donations only in the wake of disasters; it was widely remarked, for example, that some $6 billion had been given to disaster relief in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Yet, admirable as that giving was, Americans routinely give about $6 billion to charity every week, Meyerson noted: “Last year (2009), Americans gave $300 billion to charity. To put this into perspective, that is almost twice as much as we spent on consumer electronics equipment—equipment including cell phones, iPods, and DVD players. Americans gave three times as much to charity last year as we spent on gambling and ten times as much as we spent on professional sports.”

All of which makes us, Meyerson concluded, “the most charitable country in the world. There is no other country that comes close.” The interesting question is, why?

The first reason why has to do with American piety. Secularism may have made serious inroads into American high culture and American public life, but we are not yet Europe or Canada, and it tells in our giving: “Americans who attend church or synagogue or another form of worship once a week give three times as much to charity as a percentage of their income as do those who rarely attend religious services.” And while it is true that $100 billion of that annual $300 billion in charitable giving goes to religious institutions, two-thirds of it goes to other forms of charitable activity, usually secular in character. Moreover, Meyerson, noted, regular worshippers “also give more to secular charities than do those who never or rarely attend religious services.” Secularism’s claims to a deeper compassion for those in need are put into serious question by this data.

Americans are also not—yet—infected with the European tendency to look toward government for the resolution of all their problems. As Meyerson put it, Americans “respect the freedom and the ability of individuals, and associations of individuals, to make a difference. Americans don’t wait for government or the local nobleman to solve our problems; we find solutions ourselves.” And we help support those who are finding those solutions through charitable giving.

The culture of philanthropy that has traditionally been a part of wealth-creation in America is another facet of this striking picture of generosity, from Andrew Carnegies’s libraries to James J. Hill’s donation of the Catholic seminary in St. Paul to the Gates Foundation’s work to eradicate malaria. That this extraordinary generosity—and its microcosmic counterparts in the giving that ordinary Americans do—is facilitated by tax laws that make charitable giving economically beneficial to the donors simply suggests that, for once, there’s a part of the tax code of which we can be proud.

This Lent, however, Catholics still have reason for some examination of conscience on their almsgiving. We’re traditionally far behind our Protestant brethren in the percentage of our income we give back to God; and, one expects, we’re also a bit behind the curve on giving to secular charities, too. The “one-third, one-third, one-third rule” still applies in too many Catholic parishes: one-third of a parish’s families carry the bulk of the parish’s financial burden, one-third do a little, and one-third do nothing. That can, and should, change, even in economically difficult times.

George Weigel
George Weigel
George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His column is distributed by the Denver Catholic.

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