Tuesday, August 24, 2010


That is, in terms of income percentage. No surprise, really.

From the New York Times courtesy of
the Huffington Post news wire:

The Charitable Giving Divide

His study, written with Michael W. Kraus and published online last month by The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that lower-income people were more generous, charitable, trusting and helpful to others than were those with more wealth. They were more attuned to the needs of others and more committed generally to the values of egalitarianism.

“Upper class” people, on the other hand, clung to values that “prioritized their own need.” And, he told me this week, “wealth seems to buffer people from attending to the needs of others.” Empathy and compassion appeared to be the key ingredients in the greater generosity of those with lower incomes. And these two traits proved to be in increasingly short supply as people moved up the income spectrum.

This compassion deficit — the inability to empathetically relate to others’ needs — is perhaps not so surprising in a society that for decades has seen the experiential gap between the well-off and the poor (and even the middle class) significantly widen. The economist Frank Levy diagnosed such a split in his book “The New Dollars and Dreams: American Incomes and Economic Change,” published in the midst of the late-1990s tech boom. “The welfare state,” Levy wrote, “rests on enlightened self-interest in which people can look at beneficiaries and reasonably say, ‘There but for the grace of God. . . .’ As income differences widen, this statement rings less true.” A lack of identification with those in need may explain in part why a 2007 report from the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University found that only a small percentage of charitable giving by the wealthy was actually going to the needs of the poor; instead it was mostly directed to other causes — cultural institutions, for example, or their alma maters — which often came with the not-inconsequential payoff of enhancing the donor’s status among his or her peers.


I have an alternate theory, or rather, one that's complimentary.

If you're going to live a life of great privilege, with full knowledge that the vast majority of humanity doesn't share that privilege, and with full knowledge that many of those people, perhaps a majority, suffer greatly, and your wealth could easily alleviate a great deal of such suffering, you're going to need a really good philosophical rationale, or just some good bullshit, that makes everything okay. In the United States, at least, that philosophical rationale can be easily summed up with a statement along the lines of "we deserve to be rich because we're better people; they deserve to be poor because they're not as good as we are."

Actually, this is some very old bullshit, going way back to the concept of divine right, and probably even earlier. But it's alive and well, dominant even, today. Simply put, the rich think they're better than we are. I mean okay, everyone's an individual, and I'm sure that a few among the wealthy really don't think they're better, but as a class, this is the prevailing attitude. As the political arm of the wealth class, the Republican Party has worked tirelessly for decades to get poor redneck idiots to buy into this "philosophy"; thus, we see large numbers of Americans continually voting with the elite in large numbers.

At any rate, when you think you're superior, it's really easy to not give a shit about the fortunes of others. And when the Wall Street Journal and casual cocktail conversation at the country club always reinforce your holier-than-thou attitude, charitable donations become nothing more than symbolic. When you look at it that way, it's surprising that the wealthy donate at all.

But really, the problem is the concept of charity itself. I mean, charity alleviates some misery, but it doesn't solve any problems. Conservatives love to spout the "teach a man to fish" adage, but if you throw in some ideas about restructuring the economy such that a fisherman is able to compete fairly with big business, it's actually a pretty liberal concept: empower individuals to take charge of their own economic situation.

In the end, all that charity does is make people who give feel good about themselves. And that's nice. But if we're really interested in ending poverty, we're going to have to fuck up the wealthy's gravy train. I seriously doubt that's possible in the current political climate.