At least according to this study by the Chronicle on Philanthropy. As news chatter swirls in the media about tax rates and entitlements, this study offers interesting, objective data on how generous we are with our money.
It’s an important question to explore.
After all, any argument to reduce entitlements for the poor must surely rely on private and faith-based giving as an alternative.
Just as surely, another could push back by wondering if those who advocate entitlements do so because they do not believe, or participate themselves, in faith-based charity.
The Chronicle study found that lower-income Americans tend to give more, as a percentage of their income, to the poor. The study also found that wealthier Americans give more when they live in proximity to those who are poor.
(Both of which may go towards explaining how our own zip code here in Fairfax scores so high in generosity.)
On both these counts, the study really only verified what churches have known for a long time.
It’s important, from a Christian perspective, to note how it’s proximity to need that elicits a compassionate response. To the extent that poverty is an abstraction generosity suffers. It’s about relationships, in other words.
In the same way that it’s easy to demonize homosexuals when you don’t know any, if you don’t know any actual poor people, your generous response will always be further down your priority list.
You have to know real faces and names and homes and concrete needs and problems.
And if, as Christians believe, generosity is a necessary expression of our humanity, as we’re made in God’s image, then our proclivity to isolate ourselves from the poor with sheltered lives and gated communities actually renders us less human.
The study also found that people of faith tend to be more generous too, which accounts for higher levels of giving in regions that report greater church attendance.
This isn’t surprising. What the Chronicle study finds is what Christians already knew from Jesus, who saved one of his harshest pictures of hell for someone who was willfully ignorant of the hunger and suffering of poor Lazarus literally at his doorstep.
This is why the Church has always emphasized not charitable giving but hands-on works of mercy for the poor. Writing a check to an abstract cause or a face and name in a magazine is one thing. Having to look in the eyes and learn the name and about the life of a person in poverty is another, more transformative, thing entirely.