The Frontal Cortex

Charity and Conservatives

Tis the season to be generous, to count our blessing and and remember the more needy. In that spirit, it’s worth noting that conservatives are more generous than us liberals. According to a new book by Arthur Brooks, a behavioral economist at Syracuse, people on the right side of the political spectrum tend to donate more money to non-profits.

In the book, Brooks cites extensive data analysis to demonstrate that values advocated by conservatives — from church attendance and two-parent families to the Protestant work ethic and a distaste for government-funded social services — make conservatives more generous than liberals.

The book, titled “Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism” (Basic Books, $26), is due for release Nov. 24.

When it comes to helping the needy, Brooks writes: “For too long, liberals have been claiming they are the most virtuous members of American society. Although they usually give less to charity, they have nevertheless lambasted conservatives for their callousness in the face of social injustice.”

The book’s basic findings are that conservatives who practice religion, live in traditional nuclear families and reject the notion that the government should engage in income redistribution are the most generous Americans, by any measure.

Here at Scienceblogs we spend lots of time bashing the faithful. In general, religious folk are a relatively easy target, especially when they try to take on Darwin. But it’s also worth noting that religious belief seems to correlate, at least in America, with an enlarged sense of charity for your fellow man. I hope that little fact makes it into the next edition of The God Delusion.


  1. #1 writerdd
    November 24, 2006

    You’ve missed the point here. Conservatives give to private charities exactly because they are conservative and they don’t believe in government social services. And they bitch and whine about tax increases for such services. Liberals, on the other hand, expect the government to take care of its citizens and we don’t mind putting into the pot to do so. We realize that private charities, while they may help with immediate needs, will never be able to fix the root problems and failures in society that require the intervention of private charities.

  2. #2 Boadi Rigaud
    November 24, 2006

    I’m pretty firmly on the left, but this is undeniable.

    I work daily with addicts. Unfortunately it’s hard to refer someone to any sort of free program that isn’t faithbased. AA itself is faithbased. Many atheists and agnostics run away from these programs screaming “it’s a cult,” and as a result, never receive proper counseling and treatment. It’s very frustrating.

    But you can’t lay the blame on the faithful. They’re pouring their hearts, souls, and dollars into these sorts of programs because it’s the right thing for them.

    The blame lies with the secular left. IMO, we just don’t put as much time, effort and money into creating good domestic non-governmental social programs.

    Perhaps we lack a sense of civic duty? Perhaps it’s infrastructural and we lack a meeting place or a townhall to discuss these sort of responsibilities and in which to organize programs… something serving the same social functions as a church.

    At any rate… it *can* happen. Food Not Bombs is a good example… the Panthers and AIM had/have good civic programs behind a lot of their politics. But still… for every one secular program it seems there are 10 faithbased ones.

  3. #3 Boadi Rigaud
    November 24, 2006

    @writerdd – Yeah… but the right is paying their taxes (for the most part) and still giving money *on top* of that. The left pushes for governmental programs, to be sure, but we don’t get everything we want. If we don’t give, people will continue to fall through the cracks. This is where the left fails, and the right is taking up the slack. It takes a combined approach… just voting for the liberal and calling it good is not enough. You still have to assist the people the politicians can’t or won’t help.

  4. #4 SMC
    November 24, 2006

    “What proportion of the charities in question are religious organizations?” was the question that immediately sprung to mind when I first heard of this study.

    Or put more cynically – how much is “charity” and how much is “tithing”?…

  5. #5 Jonah
    November 24, 2006

    SMC raises an excellent question, although it’s also worth noting that many religious organizations provide important social services that aren’t religious in nature. We shouldn’t count donations to support church education or evangelical outreach as charitable giving, but I know that many donations to a local church in my town actually fund the homeless shelter.

  6. #6 Boadi Rigaud
    November 24, 2006

    @SMC – Or even more cynically: if you’re hungry and need a meal, do you care whether your next meal was “charity” or “a tithing.”

    More resources is more resources.

    Continuing on cynically: Then again, you may remember who fed you. You may find yourself siding with the right because they helped you when you needed it the most. This is a major “PR loss” for the left.

    If you care about your liberal values, you should take this all very seriously… for two reasons:

    1. You’re liberal and you’re supposed to care about the down-and-out.. so it’s a shameful that an average liberal doesn’t donate as much as the average conservative.
    2. Every addict who goes through a faithbased program successfully, will probably end up on the religious right… and may eventually vote against evolution in schools.

    The best thing that could happen is that this will become a big issue. That will guilt the left into donating more. Then more people will go through programs with liberal politics, and those people will vote more left of center.

    How’s *that* for cynical.

  7. #7 Agnostic
    November 24, 2006

    It could be that the conservatives being described (small-town, nuclear family, not cold rich bastards) believe more in the limiting factor of unmalleable human nature on social outcomes, while liberals who don’t donate believe more in the self-made man myth. For the former, it’s not the fault of the less fortunate that they ended up in an inestimable state, while for the latter low status represents a failure to make the most of oneself, with the hidden premise that everyone has the potential to become a lawyer, doctor, engineer, etc.

  8. #8 DavidD
    November 25, 2006

    “By any measure”? Oh, I wish one could bet on the veracity of such claims at a sportsbook. That’s not betting. That’s a sure thing. I looked at the links. I take it the primary measure from this book is absolute dollars donated to charity. But what’s a charity? What about time donated, toward which activities? What’s conservative? What’s liberal?

    Just how many measures were considered in this book? How about donations relative to income? How about relative to disposable income? What were pre-tax dollars and what were post-tax dollars? How much did it hurt people to give? Did they really give it in ways that help people, or was a lot of it wasted on advocacy or administration?

    My training in science taught me to ask those kind of questions, but even if one got together reasonable data before liberals and conservatives started sticking out their tongues and wagging their fingers at each other, this whole thing is missing the point. Having retired from my profession, I volunteer at an interfaith charity that helps those with a variety of needs. When it comes to my clients I can state categorically that whatever anyone is donating, IT’S NOT ENOUGH.

    I’m sure plenty of people do their share, enough to end homelessness and end poverty if everyone did likewise. I would bet that either liberals or conservatives alone could do that if it were a priority for everyone. We have that kind of affluence in the US. But we have other priorities.

    So what this arguing is about is who neglects the needy more, not who does enough. All classes of people neglect the needy, which is especially hypocritical for those who claim that the Bible is the Word of God. Matthew 25: 31-46 says that this is a big deal, that Jesus is in the needy. Anyone who thinks there’s virtue in giving a little more than the next guy should read those verses.

    Meanwhile my clients get along. Most of them survive each day. I wouldn’t trade places with any of them, not one. I couldn’t help them if I did. I’d be too busy and too anxious just trying to survive. That’s why no one’s donations are enough. It’s unacceptable what our society puts needy people through, even if it used to be worse. It’s on all of our heads.

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    November 26, 2006

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  10. #10 Dave
    November 27, 2006

    This is a big surprise! I’d have thought that leftists–having more compassion–would give more to charities than right wingers. I guess not. Maybe we assume our taxes should be enough to take care of everybody?

  11. #11 Lizzie
    November 29, 2006

    At least two of the greatest philanthropists of our time, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett appear to be atheist. Even if it’s not that common, it IS possible to reach great heights of compassion without religion.

  12. #12 Lizzie
    November 29, 2006

    Apologies- I shouldn’t have said “not that common”. There are countless examples of enormous secular compassion- the entire field of social work, for example!

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