Through charitable giving, Americans spread the wealth

In the midst of hard times, Americans are volunteering more and giving more to charity compared with last year and with the rest of the world. According to an annual poll conducted by the international Charities Aid Foundation, with results announced Monday, the people of the United States ranked as the most generous in the world in terms of time and money in 2011, up from fifth place in 2010.

Nearly two-thirds of Americans said they had donated money to charity, more than 40% volunteered their time, and close to three-fourths said they had helped a stranger. The country improved in all three measurements over the past year.

For a country this well off — and yes, in comparable terms, it still is — the number of Americans dipping into their wallets is still a little on the low side. The most generous with their money are the people of Thailand, where 85% said they had donated to charity. In the United Kingdom, 79% of people gave money, but the British — and the rest of the world — are about half as likely to do volunteer work as Americans.

The poll didn’t measure how much people donated, only whether they did. But according to another poll released Monday, this one by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Americans are indeed growing more generous. More than half of the U.S. charities surveyed said they were receiving more money than last year; a fifth of them expected donations to be up 20% or more. That happy turn of events was dampened, though, by the news that the demand for aid was rising faster than donations.


These are trends worth pondering as the nation debates whether to keep the charitable tax deduction, and in what form. President Obama has proposed reducing it, and in the past there has been discussion of getting rid of it. It’s unclear to what extent the deduction spurs charitable giving, or how it interacts with other factors including the state of the economy.

Obviously — and thankfully — there’s more to the giving equation than how much people get back when they file their taxes. We like to think that the higher giving this year occurred at least in part because of, not despite, the difficult employment situation. At some markets here in Southern California, you can see shoppers emerging from the stores not with a can or two to donate to the food banks outside, but a bag or two. The spreading phenomenon of this holiday season is the “layaway angel,” with people showing up at Kmart stores to pay off the shopping balances of needy strangers. As the Charities Aid Foundation poll found, Americans are particularly likely to help strangers, and these acts of kindness belie the country’s “every man for himself” reputation.