HERE IS SOMETHING TO PONDER as the Salvation Army bell-ringers make their annual appearance: Why are New Englanders such cheapskates? Or, to put it differently, what makes Southerners so generous?
Every year the Internal Revenue Service releases statistics on charitable giving using data gleaned from itemized federal income tax returns. (Only 30 percent of tax filers itemize contributions, but their returns account for two-thirds of all household charity.) When the IRS numbers are ranked by state, New England is invariably at the bottom. Nationwide, the average charitable contribution per itemized return was $2,449 in 1995. Not one of the six New England states came close.
In Rhode Island, the stingiest state in the Union -- dead last at #50 -- taxpayers reported giving, on average, a pathetic $1,546. In New Hampshire (#49), where residents may be taking their motto "Live Free or Die" a bit too literally, the average donation was just $1,634. In Maine (#48), it was $1,640. In Vermont (#47), $1,734. In Massachusetts (#44), $1,919. Only Connecticut managed to surmount the bottom 10. But not the bottom 15 -- its average charitable contribution of $2,155 put it at #36.
It isn't only New Englanders who are tightfisted. Hawaii, Wisconsin, and New Jersey are also in the philanthropic basement. But as a region, New England stands out for its lack of generosity -- a pattern all the more dismaying given the relatively high incomes New Englanders earn. The Chronicle of Philanthropy noted in 1994 that Greater Boston ranked fourth nationwide in per-capita income. In charitable giving it ranked 28th.
None of this means, of course, that there are not deeply generous people and inspiring acts of selflessness in New England. (Or, for that matter, in Hawaii, Wisconsin, and New Jersey.) What does it mean?
The most generous state in America, according to the IRS data, is Utah, where the average taxpayer donated $4,593 to charity -- almost double the national average. After Utah come Wyoming, Tennessee, Mississippi, Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, and Louisiana. With the exception of Virginia, every state of the Old South is among the top 15. None of these states is usually thought of as especially affluent. Mississippi is often regarded as the poorest state in the nation. Yet Mississippi tax filers gave an average of $3,430 to charity in 1995 -- fourth-highest in the nation, hundreds of dollars more per person than New Hampshire and Rhode Island combined. Why?
Two answers: The role of the church. And the role of the government.
What the IRS figures suggest is that the more influential religion is in the culture of a state, the more likely that state's people are to give of themselves and of their earnings to others. The data also suggest that when citizens grow accustomed to thinking that it is the government's job to take care of society's unfilled needs, charity tends to disappear.
Nowhere is church influence stronger than in Utah, where the vast majority of residents are Mormons, and in the Southern Bible Belt, where Baptist populations are the largest. Mormons strongly emphasize tithing; Baptists give more to their churches than most other Christian denominations. Considering that 45 percent of all charity goes to religious institutions and faith-based agencies, it is no wonder tax returns from Utah and the South reflect such generosity.
Or that giving in New England, where churches have far less impact on public culture than they used to, should be so much lower.
But that is only part of the story.
"There is 'big-C Compassion' and 'small-c compassion,' " says Marvin Olasky, a journalism professor at the University of Texas and a historian of charity and social welfare in the United States. "In some states, people show their compassion by building up government budgets and giving the state the main responsibility to help the needy. In other states, people don't associate compassion with the government. Helping out neighbors with troubles is something they expect to do themselves."
"Small-c compassion" is the church Olasky describes in Jackson, Miss., where needy members are assisted not with referrals to a government program but with a deaconal passing of the hat -- a "purely voluntary income redistribution," as he calls it, from the well-off to the less-well-off. "Big-C compassion" is US Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts millionaire who speaks frequently of caring for the needy but whose own tax returns reveal virtually no charitable giving at all. (From 1990 to 1995, Kerry donated less than 0.7 percent of his income to charity.)
It isn't carved in granite, but it's a pretty good rule of thumb: Where a state's political attitudes are conservative and wary of government, charitable giving tends to be higher. Where voters are more liberal, charity tends to go down. The top of the IRS list is dominated by the most conservative swath of the country; the bottom of the list by the most liberal. Of the 10 most generous states, eight voted for Bob Dole last year; of the 10 most grudging, nine supported Bill Clinton.
Is it possible to devise other explanations? Yes. Is it true that not every state fits the pattern? It is. But if I were hungry or homeless and needed a helping hand, I'd rather be in Mississippi than Massachusetts.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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