Arthur C. Brooks spent 12 years as a professional French horn player with the Barcelona Symphony Orchestra and other ensembles. Then he entered academia and is now Professor of Public Administration at Syracuse University. In his well-researched book, Who Really Cares: the Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism (Basic, 2006), Brooks uses statistics to demolish years of propaganda.
WORLD: Overall, do liberals or conservatives give more to charity and volunteer more of their time?
BROOKS: Conservatives give privately more to charity than liberals do. For example, households headed by a conservative donate, on average, 30 percent more dollars than households headed by a liberal. And this isn't because conservatives earn more: On the contrary, liberal families earn an average of 6 percent more per year than conservative families, and conservative families give more than liberal families within every income class, from poor to middle class to rich. These differences go beyond money as well. Take blood donations, for example. In 2002, conservative Americans were more likely to donate blood each year, and did so more often, than liberals.
WORLD: You note, though, a big difference in giving and volunteering among conservatives, depending on whether they are "religious people" (attending a house of worship nearly every week) or "secularists" (attending never or almost never, or explicitly saying that they have no religion) . . .
BROOKS: Exactly right. In fact, it's not politics per se that appears to make most conservatives charitable, but rather much more fundamental cultural factors like religious faith. Indeed, if I want to predict anyone's charity habits-conservative or liberal-and I can only ask one question, it will be about his or her religious faith-so important is that to most people's giving. To give an idea just how important, consider that religious conservatives are 28 percentage points more likely to give than secular conservatives, give nearly four times more dollars per year, and volunteer more than twice as frequently.
WORLD: How do religious liberals and secular liberals compare?
BROOKS: Just like conservatives, these two groups are worlds apart. Religious liberals give at extremely high rates-very similarly to religious conservatives, actually-while secular liberals give little. The big problem for liberal charity today is that the population of religious liberals is shrinking quickly, as the American political left secularizes due to low liberal fertility and the attrition of people of faith to the political right. Today, there are nearly twice as many secular liberals as there are religious ones. In contrast, there are nearly three times as many religious conservatives as secular ones.
WORLD: You compare the charitable giving of a person who goes to church each week and strongly opposes governmental income redistribution with that of a person who never attends a house of worship and strongly believes in government income redistribution . . .
BROOKS: That's correct. A person who goes to church every week and strongly rejects the idea that it is the government's responsibility to redistribute income will give, on average, 100 times more money to charity each year than a person who never attends a house of worship, and strongly believes that the government should reduce income differences between people. The religious person who is a government skeptic will also give about 50 times more to explicitly nonreligious causes. In other words, attitudes about the government compound the charity gap we see due to faith.
WORLD: The conventional understanding is that religious people give largely to religious groups, and that secular people give more to secular groups than religious people do. Same goes for volunteering-but your findings are different . . .
BROOKS: The assumption that religious Americans are just giving to their churches is one I made myself when I first started writing about giving. But it's wrong. The fact is that religious people are more personally charitable in every measurable way than secularists. For example, religious people are 10 percentage points more likely than secularists to give money to explicitly secular charities, and 21 points more likely to volunteer. The data show the same pattern for informal giving to friends and family, blood donations, small acts of kindness-everything you can think of. Religious people are even more ethical than secularists: If a cashier accidentally gives a churchgoer too much change, the odds are better than half that he or she will return it, while the odds are more than six in 10 that a secularist will choose not to give it back.
WORLD: What does your research show about the "crowding out" effect-that as governmental assistance to the poor increases, church-based charity decreases?
BROOKS: Numerous studies by economists over the past decade have demonstrated that a dollar in government spending on nonprofit activities directly displaces between 25 and 50 cents in private giving. The highest level of this "crowding out" occurs in assistance to the poor and other kinds of social welfare services-including to religious organizations-indicating that government social spending for the needy benefits recipients, but only by about half its face value. While less than a full-blown indictment of the usefulness of public money, it still means that the true effects of government assistance are weaker than government officials and nonprofit proponents think they are.
WORLD: How do you deal with the New York Times argument that the share of contributions going to organizations helping the poor has fallen?
BROOKS: That argument makes it sound as if people were donating less and less to causes that help America's poor. However, that's not true. First, the inflation-adjusted, per-capita amount given by Americans to human service charities was 14 percent higher in 2004 than it was in 1960. Second, over the same period, the percentage of the American population living in poverty fell by half, and the amount of real federal government payments to the poor increased by more than 500 percent. In other words, there still is need in the U.S., but it has clearly decreased over the last 50 years-while private charity to alleviate this need has not.
WORLD: Europeans tend to lecture U.S. residents about "American individualism" that purportedly leads to selfishness. Do Europeans or Americans tend to be more personally charitable?
BROOKS: We do hear this criticism frequently: Americans are consumerists, capitalists, individualists, and thus uninterested in the good of others. But this assertion falls apart when exposed to even the smallest bit of evidence. In per capita private charity, Americans give three and a half times as much as the French, seven times as much as the Germans, and 14 times as much as the Italians. To give an idea how much Americans give, consider the fact that American annual charitable giving exceeds the entire GDP of many European countries, such as Norway and Denmark. Of course, Europeans often note that they have more generous government welfare systems than America. That's mostly true, but should not be confused with giving. Government welfare and private charity are very different things.
WORLD: Do children raised in religious households or secular ones tend to be the most charitable?
BROOKS: People who were taken to church every week as kids are 22 percentage points more likely to give charitably as adults than people who were never taken to a house of worship when they were young. The effect of childhood church attendance is clear even among those who fall away from their faith as adults: Secularist adults who were taken to church every week as children are 21 percentage points more likely to give than those who were brought up in secular households. From my perspective, this is one way that religion appears to create beneficial "hardwiring" in people. I intend to do more work on this topic because I think it is so important for understanding the deep benefits of religion in American society, and the long-term costs of a secularizing society.
WORLD: Should the government create more incentives to be charitable? If so, what kind do you think would work best?
BROOKS: Policies such as tax-deductibility for contributions are sensible, but they will never create a population of givers. On the other hand, government at its worst can create massive damage when it creates the perception that there is less need for private charity. The most effective government efforts for private giving would probably be just to avoid regulatory barriers and financial disincentives.