Ever since the New Deal, liberals and leftists have depicted themselves as more compassionate than conservatives, citing, as evidence of their compassion, their own preference for raising taxes on high earners in the name of helping the poor. As author and radio personality Garrison Keillor puts it: "I am a liberal, and liberalism is the politics of kindness. Liberals stand for tolerance, magnanimity, community spirit, the defense of the weak against the powerful ..." By contrast, Keillor describes conservative Republicans as "swamp developers and corporate shills," "bullies with Bibles," "freelance racists," and "brownshirts in pinstripes." For the most part, the leading voices in academia, the media, the entertainment industry, and the religious left have echoed the notion that liberals and leftists care more deeply than others about the needy.
In an effort to determine how accurate that perception is, American Enterprise Institute president Arthur C. Brooks made a comprehensive study of how charitable giving correlates to political orientation, and he published his findings in the 2006 book Who Really Cares. All the evidence, says the author, suggests that conservatives are in fact more generous than liberals. There is one important caveat, however: There is a strong correlation between religious faith and charity. The more religious a person is, the more likely it is that he or she will give to charity.
All told, Brooks sees "four forces in American life that are primarily responsible for making Americans charitable" -- "religion, skepticism about the role of government in economic life, strong families, and personal entrepreneurism." While these traits are not limited solely to the political right, Brooks shows that the beliefs held by the most generous Americans are far more likely to be held by the right than by the left.
For example, the “redder” a particular state is (i.e., the more its voters support Republican candidates in elections), the likelier its residents are to be charitable. According to Brooks, fully 24 of the 25 most generous states were red ones (only Maryland was a charitably minded blue, or Democrat-supporting, state). Residents of the five states that cast more than 60 percent of their ballots for President Bush in 2004 gave 3.5 percent of their incomes to charity, nearly twice as much per person as residents of the five states (including the District of Columbia) where Democrat John Kerry received 60 percent of the vote or better. This, says Brooks, occurred even though residents of the deep-blue pro-Kerry states earned, on average, 38 percent more per household than their red-state counterparts.
Brooks also cites a 2004 survey conducted by Syracuse University, which compared the charitable giving habits of people who were identical in age, income, education, gender, religion, race, and political views -- and whose only disagreement was that one group of subjects thought it was the government's job to redistribute income from the rich to the poor, while the other thought that income redistribution was none of the state's business. Those who opposed government income-redistribution contributed, on average, $267 more to charity each year than the income-redistribution advocates. "In other words," Brooks writes, "people in favor of forced income redistribution are privately less charitable than those who oppose it, regardless of how much money they earn."
Economists have long known that if the state expands, the private sector shrinks; they call this process the "public goods crowding-out effect." Brooks, in his book, cites a 2005 paper, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, in which economists Jonathan Gruber and Daniel M. Hungerman explore how this "crowding-out effect" manifested itself vis a vis charitable contributions during the New Deal. The researchers note that while the welfare state between 1933 and 1939 expanded from zero to four percent of America's gross domestic product, religious charities shrank by 30 percent during the same period.
Brooks finds a similar crowding-out process taking place today. Under current welfare laws, states set the payments under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), the principal government welfare program. Tennessee's TANF payments are 61 percent lower than New Hampshire's, and Tennesseans give, on average, 4.3 percent of their incomes to charity -- well above the 1.8 percent in New Hampshire. Brooks calculates that if Tennessee were to raise its welfare payments to New Hampshire's level, charitable giving in Tennessee would fall by 42 percent.
Adapted from "Faith, Hope, and Charity: Who Gives to Whom, and Why, by Martin Morse Wooster (January 22, 2007).