Who Really Gives?
by Jonathan Rosenblum
January 10, 2007
Last week a 22-year-old avreich passed away suddenly in Jerusalem. On his kitchen table at the time of his passing were five letters, stamped and ready for mailing. Each was a check made out to a different tzedakah. Those contributions typify a society in which such contributions, even by families living on shoestring budgets, as this newlywed couple was, are an integral part of daily life.
There are major givers in the Torah world who spend eight hours or more on an average Sunday personally welcoming into their home those collecting for themselves or institutions. I have come out of such a home on a weekday night to find so many people waiting on the sidewalk that policemen were needed to handle the crowds.
But even more remarkable than the generosity of the great givers is that of average chareidi families. Millions of dollars are raised each year in Eretz Yisrael from avreichim with large families, who barely have enough to feed their own families.
While the generosity of the Torah community has no equal in the entire world, a new work, Who Really Gives: America's Charity Divide by Professor Arthur Brooks of Syracuse University, shows generosity to be part of a larger pattern. Religious people of all denominations are more generous than non-religious. Americans are the most generous people in the world. Their annual giving is 3.5 times that of the French, 7 times that of Germans, and 14 times that of Italians. That disparity is largely linked to the fact that America is also the world's most religious country by every standard measures of religiosity.
Of the 25 states with above average giving, 24 were red states in the last election. In those states that gave President Bush more than 60% of the vote, the average family contributed 3.5% of its income to charity compared to 1.9% in states in which Bush drew less than 40% of the vote. Needless to say the so-called red states were also the most religious states in the country.
Those who oppose government policies designed to redistribute wealth and families with children show far more personal generosity than those on the opposite end of the spectrum. And it turns out that the percentage of income one gives has little to do with wealth. The working poor turn out to be the most generous of all societal groups – giving 30% more than the rich as a percentage of income.
Columnist John Stossel tells of an experiment in which a communal charity put collection boxes on a busy street corner in two locations – one in San Francisco and the other in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Three times as many pedestrians passed by the collection box in San Francisco as in Sioux Falls. And the average per capita income in San Francisco is twice that in Sioux Falls. San Francisco is also one of the most left-wing cities in the country. (The local school board recently banned all high school ROTC programs, as a protest against American militarism.) Yet at the end of the second day, there was twice as much money in the charity box in Sioux Falls as there was in San Francisco.
Though political conservatism and having children are correlated to generosity (and to one another), by far the most salient feature in Professor Brooks' analysis was religiosity. Those who attend a house of worship once a week are 25% more likely to give than those who do so never or rarely. And when they do give, they give four times as much. Nor is the generosity of religious people limited to the religious community. They are 10% more likely to give to explicitly non-religious charities and 25 % more likely to volunteer for secular groups, such as the PTA.
Interestingly, these findings track similar studies within the Jewish community. There too those who talk most of social justice are the least likely to actually contribute of their time or money. Political scientist Raymond Legge Jr. concluded, based on a 1999 survey of the giving patterns of American Jewry, "While social justice is a concept stressed most heavily by the Reform movement, . . . the analyses indicate that in terms of financial contributions, this group is least likely to practice it."
Legge found that Orthodox Jews are 50% more likely to volunteer their time than the non-Orthodox. Nearly 14% of the Orthodox contributed over $5,000 to a Jewish charity last year versus 2.8% of Conservative Jews and 1% for Reform and non-affiliated. Surprisingly, Orthodox Jews are even twice as likely as Reform Jews to contribute over $5,000 to a secular charity. These disparities are even more remarkable when one considers that the Orthodox are the least affluent sector of American Jewry (though there is unprecedented Orthodox affluence as well), and most Orthodox families stagger under huge tuition bills.
LIBERAL POLITICS AND HARANGUES ABOUT SOCIAL JUSTICE, I would argue, are too often nothing more than cheap ways of allowing one to feel good about oneself. Wailing about the plight of the poor, downtrodden Palestinians is a prime example. The Palestinian cause will never demand anything of its Western supporters, and the cost of the policies advocated by Palestinian sympathizers will be paid in dead Jews far away.
George Will's distinction between values and virtues is relevant here. Values are something one proclaims; virtues – generosity, discipline, restraint – are qualities one attains. Someone can proclaim a hundred and one beautiful values without us being any the wiser as to his character. What he does, not what he professes, is the key to assessing the latter. That is why liberals are so eager to discuss their good values.
Still to be explained, however, is why religiosity proves to be a better predictor of generosity (and, I would guess, character in general.) The most obvious reason is the force of the Divine command. Religious people give more than non-religious people because they believe that doing so is the fulfillment of Hashem's plan for the world and their role in that plan.
Religious life also tends to be communal life. That is particularly so in the case of Judaism, but to some degree it is true of all religions. Recall that one of the key indicia of religiosity used by social scientists is attendance at some form of communal worship. Those who see themselves as part of a community feel a personal responsibility for others, in particular for fellow members of their religious community.
A third factor is that religious people are less likely to feel that their money is theirs by right. A religious person remains ever alert to the role of Hashem in his or her success, and that everything they achieve is not just by virtue of their own abilities and intelligence. Even where they have been blessed with great abilities, religious people remain acutely aware that those talents are "gifts," and not something that they somehow earned.
(This explains, incidentally, why businessmen tend to be more generous that professionals like doctors and lawyers. Successful professionals usually excelled academically their entire lives. As a consequence, they view their high salaries as something earned and a reflection of their superior talents.
By contrast, businessmen, even the most successful, have usually been up and down several times in life. And they recognize that their success is not exclusively a function of their superior talents, otherwise their fluctuating fortunes would be hard to explain. Because businessmen are less inclined to view their wealth as something they earned exclusively through their own abilities, they are less reluctant to part with it.)
Finally, religious people do not view life primarily in terms of the pursuit of physical and material pleasures. Pleasure for them is more likely to come from children and grandchildren, who often require that we delay or even deny ourselves much immediate gratification. Acting properly, doing that which is pleasing in the eyes of Hashem, provides religious people the pleasure that others derive from the material, physical world. Since material pleasures play a significantly smaller role in their lives, the religious are more willing to share their material resources with others rather than hoard their money for themselves in order to purchase more material goodies.
The religious person has no trouble identifying with the wise woman quoted by Rabbi Dessler: Everything I retained for myself, I lost -- i.e., it was eventually consumed and gone -- while everything I gave away I retained in the form of enduring relationships with the recipients of my gifts.
Related Topics: Jewish Ethics
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