We all know that the U.S. has a long and strong tradition of giving and volunteering that supports a huge and diverse nonprofit sector. And we have increasingly precise data on how much Americans give. The grand total of private gifts has now risen to some $125 billion annually an amount that, if one is not too observant, can lead to the erroneous conclusion that Americans are very generous people.
The truth is that poor and middle-class Americans are remarkably generous even though their gifts involve some degree of sacrifice and many receive no tax inducements whatever because they take the standard deduction.
But wealthy Americans for whom tax incentives are significant and for whom gifts to charity ordinarily involve no sacrifice of comforts and luxuries are very much less generous. About the best that can be said for America’s wealthy is that they probably give marginally more than their counterparts in Europe, who still follow the old rule: “Don’t get too sentimental about the poor.”
We have a truly upside-down situation: The poorest households, with incomes well below $10,000 a year, give more than 5 percent of their meager means to charity; the wealthiest Americans, with incomes above $100,000 a year, give less than 3 percent.
We can feel good about the rising totals of giving by most Americans, but we should be deeply distressed, indeed outraged, by the comparative niggardliness of our wealthy, especially when social needs are so acute and we have had nearly two decades in which the accumulation of private wealth has reached unheard-of totals.
There are some resplendent exceptions to this general charge, of course, and they deserve praise. But the most recent figures from the Treasury Department make it clear that in general the stinginess and insensitivity of the rich is getting worse and worse.
In 1990, 8 of 10 Americans who had estates of $500,000 or more left nothing to charity. In 1979, people making $1 million gave more than 7 percent of their after-tax income to charity; by 1991 that figure had dropped to less than 4 percent. For all taxpayers who itemize deductions, charitable contributions increased by an average of some 9 percent in the past decade; for those with pre-tax incomes over $1 million dollars, contributions decreased by nearly 40 percent.
Those disheartening facts make it clear why our society so desperately needs fund-raisers and prospect researchers. The most likely way to get a wealthy person to give to charity since he or she is unlikely to take the initiative is to extract it by soliciting it, whether by mail or in person. And the appeal is much more likely to be effective if it is informed and tailored to the proclivities and interests of the person being solicited.
So it can be reasonably said that our growing fund-raising professions, however annoying they may be to some, are our best, perhaps our only, means of correcting in some degree one of the ugliest features of the American system. In their zeal to get gifts, fund-raisers must be careful not to improperly intrude on people’s privacy. But if they were not constantly trying to get the rich to give a little bit more, who knows the depth to which the miserable 3 percent might fall?