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Aid and comfort

Charity | When it comes to giving, Americans are not so ugly after all

The myth of the "ugly American" has become so pervasive that it has become a stereotype: loud, loutish, and selfish.

The truth is very different, at least when it comes to charitable giving. Americans are the most generous people on the planet, and they mostly don't toot their own horns about it.

A new study by the Hudson Institute's Center for Global Prosperity says that Americans account for 45 percent of all philanthropic giving worldwide. Not only is that significantly more than any other nation on earth, it's also dramatically more on a per capita basis. One example: The average American gives 14 times more to charity than the average Italian.

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The results of the study do not surprise Arthur C. Brooks, a fellow at the Hudson Institute and the author of Gross National Happiness, a book that says there is a strong link between philanthropy, economic freedom, and happiness (see "Building the skyscraper down," May 17/24).

"Americans give at least twice as much as anyone else," Brooks said. "And we're giving now more than ever before." Brooks said that, even after adjusting for inflation, the buying power of Americans has grown 150 percent since 1955, but that inflation-adjusted giving increased 190 percent during that same period.

Brooks said the myth of the "ugly American" has persisted in part because "it's in the interest of a lot of people"-those who want to see the size and role of government enlarge, for example-"to portray Americans as callous and uncaring."

The most popular "data point" used by those who portray Americans as stingy is the amount of foreign aid the U.S. government sends to developing countries. Indeed, overall foreign aid as a percentage of gross national income ranks the United States 21st among the 30 OECD (developed) countries.

But that middling rank is less because of stinginess and more because the U.S. economy is simply so massive-accounting for more than a quarter of worldwide economic activity. That means that in terms of real dollars, the U.S. government doled out $23.53 billion in aid in 2006, almost twice as much as No. 2 Great Britain ($12.46 billion).

More significantly, when private philanthropy, investments, foreign aid, and remittances are considered together, the United States by far leads the world in the overall flow of money: $192 billion left the United States for the developing world in 2006, according to the Hudson Institute study, most of it from non-governmental sources. Even as a percentage of GDP, this number brings the United States up to a respectable sixth place. No large country (with a population of 100 million or more) comes even close.

All of this, Brooks said, means-among other things-that great care must be taken when looking at individual statistics. "No reasonable person is saying there is no role for government," Brooks said. "But it is important that we look at what private philanthropy does well, and what the government does well, and we make adjustments accordingly." Brooks also said it is important to make sure that the cure is not worse than the disease. "Secularism in the culture and collectivism in the economy dampen philanthropy and diminish overall economic activity," he said. "Increasing government aid could end up having the effect of actually decreasing overall aid, in certain situations."

In other words, giving less money to things that don't work is not stinginess. Indeed, it might be the beginning of true generosity.

Rusty Leonard and Warren Cole Smith
Rusty Leonard and Warren Cole Smith

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