Study finds correlation between faith and giving

by Les Sillars
Posted 9/05/12, 03:15 pm

States with the least religious residents are also the stingiest about giving money to charity, a recent study on the generosity of Americans suggests.

The study in the Chronicle of Philanthropy last month found that residents in states where religious participation is higher than the rest of the nation, particularly in the South, gave the greatest percentage of their discretionary income to charity.

The Northeast, with lower religious participation, was the least generous to charities, with the six New England states filling the last six slots among the 50 states. Churches are among the organizations counted as charities by the study, and some states in the Northeast rank in the top 10 when religious giving is not counted.

The study was based on Internal Revenue Service records of people who itemized deductions in 2008, the most recent year statistics were available. Researchers calculated the percentage of discretionary income (calculated differently in each state because the costs of living vary by region) a typical household gave to charity.

The most generous state was heavily Mormon Utah, where residents gave 10.6 percent of their discretionary income to charity. In Mormon teachings, members must pay a 10 percent tithe to remain in good standing with the church.

Next were Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, and South Carolina. The least generous was New Hampshire, at 2.5 percent, followed by Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island.

The study found that in the Northeast region, including New England, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York, people gave 4.1 percent of their discretionary income to charity. The percentage was 5.2 percent in the Southern states, a region from Texas east to Delaware and Florida, and including most of the "Bible Belt."

Old Testament law mandates a 10 percent tithe as a way to thank God, care for others, and show faith in God's provision. In the New Testament, the Apostle Paul taught that Christians should give "what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver."

Alan Wolfe, a political science professor at Boston College, said people in less religious states often "view the tax money they're paying not as something that's forced upon them, but as a recognition that … they're citizens in the common good. I think people here believe that when they pay their taxes, they're being altruistic."

The study also found that of the 10 least generous states, nine voted for Democrat Barack Obama for president in the last election. Of the 10 most generous states, eight voted for Republican John McCain.

Middle-income earners were also found to be proportionately more generous than upper-income people: Those who earn between $50,000 and $75,000 annually give a higher percentage of their discretionary income to charity (7.6 percent) than those who make $100,000 or more (4.2 percent).

Another factor is people's exposure to others who have less material wealth. People who earn $200,000 per year give a greater percentage to charity when they live in ZIP codes with fewer people who are as wealthy as they are. The Chronicle last month also quoted psychologist Paul Piff describing his studies showing that as wealth increases, people become more insulated, less likely to engage with others, and less sensitive to others' suffering.

But in studies in which both wealthy and lower-income participants were required to watch a short video about childhood poverty, the differences between classes were much less.

"Simply seeing someone in need at the grocery store - or looking down the street at a neighbor's modest house - can serve as basic psychological reminders of the needs of other people," he said. "Absent that, wealth will have these egregious effects insulating you more and more."

The Associated Press contributed to this

Les Sillars

Les is a WORLD Radio correspondent and commentator. He previously spent two decades as WORLD Magazine's Mailbag editor. Les directs the journalism program at Patrick Henry College and resides in Purcellville, Va., with his family.

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