The Poor Are More Generous Than the Rich: The Key to Greater Generosity

One little-noted aspect of Hope Consulting’s Money For Good report about which we wrote yesterday:

As it asks why donors don’t rely more on research before they decide where to give, the report studied households with incomes over $80,000, oversampling households with incomes over $300,000, noting:

These individuals [with household incomes over $80,000] represent the top 30% of US HHs in terms of income, and make 75% of charitable donations from individuals. We oversampled individuals with household incomes over $300,000, due to these individuals’ disproportionate share of charitable contributions and investments.

True, that. As Arthur C. Brooks notes:

The [2000 Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey] indicates that the wealthiest 10 percent of households are responsible for at least a quarter of all money contributed to charity, including a fifth of what is funneled to religious organizations and about a third of what goes to secular causes. Philanthropy scholars consistently find that households with total income exceeding $1 million (about 7 percent of the U.S. population) account for about half of all charitable donations. Simply put, your local United Way would probably close down were it not for the rich people in your community.

Brooks’ post, however, is part of an overall piece entitled The Poor Give More, which details and discusses the widely substantiated phenomenon that though rich people give more money on the whole, they are far less generous than poor people when giving is considered as a percentage of income:

Americans at the bottom of the income-distribution pyramid are the country’s biggest givers per capita. (View average household donations and the percentage of income donated to charity.) The 2000 Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey shows that households with incomes below $20,000 gave a higher percentage of their earnings to charity than did any other income group: 4.6 percent, on average. As income increased, the percentage given away declined: Households earning between $50,000 and $100,000 donated 2.5 percent or less. Only at high income levels did the percentage begin to rise again: For households with incomes over $100,000, the number was 3.1 percent.

So the poor give more. But why? Brooks:

One typical explanation is that the working poor tend to belong to religious congregations that are relatively literal about biblical imperatives to give. The S.C.C.B.S. shows that in 2000, poor American families were roughly twice as likely as their middle-class counterparts to be Seventh-Day Adventists, Pentecostals, or Jehovah’s Witnesses.


Count me statistically suspicious as regards such an explanation. Are there really so many poor and pious Jehovah’s Witnesses in America as to be able to swing the statistics so significantly and conclusively?

Disappointingly little research has been done in this area, likely because the charitable giving of the poor as a total dollar figure pales in comparison to the charitable giving of the rich.

Fortunately, that leaves ample room for hacks like me to posit alternate explanations, like this one:

The poor are more generous than the rich because the poor have no choice but to be directly involved in the causes to which they give.

Alleviating poverty, after all, is not a question that the poor have to research. They are confronted by it daily. It engulfs their friends and family. They don’t need to ask whether it makes a difference because in many cases they themselves alternate between being donors and being recipients.

I know this not from postdoc research which I received funding to conduct. I know this from having served as a pastor in an inner city, where prior to passing the offering plate on Sunday morning we were fond of saying, “If you have, you give. If you need, you take.”

Why does this matter?

Because if it’s true, then we’ve been handed the key to increasing generosity for everyone. That key is not demonstration of efficiency and effectiveness, as the Money For Good study contends.

The key is direct involvement with the cause.

There is something that smacks about common sense in that assertion, after all. Seldom do we hear stories–and seldom do we tell stories–about how we or others were moved to give because we found a charity that was really making a difference.

But often we hear stories about how our finances were turned upside down because a need with a name and a face crossed our path and clutched our heart and wouldn’t let us go until we had fundamentally changed in our view of ourselves and of the world and of our purpose in it.

Stories like this.

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is the former International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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1 Response to The Poor Are More Generous Than the Rich: The Key to Greater Generosity

  1. Pingback: When It Comes to the Foundation of your Fundraising Program, Rely Completely on the Generosity of the Poor. | Rev. Eric Foley

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