Chicken soup for givers

The most charitable person I ever met never made a gift to an organized charity to the best of my knowledge.

She was Filipino, the mother of one of my co-workers, and year after year she would listen to the needs and dreams of her friends and neighbors. Then very quietly she would slip them what she could afford, carefully jotting down the amount, the purpose and date on little slips of paper.

When she died, my friend went through the homestead and found hundreds of these little pieces of paper in drawers, in the pockets of raincoats, as bookmarks in cookbooks and stuck in the corners of mirrors. To his surprise, they totaled more than $20,000, a sizable sum to his mother and father, who were gardeners at a Catholic school in Orange County. There was no evidence that any of the “loans” had been collected.


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The second-most charitable person I knew (and perhaps he’s tied for first; it’s hard to clock such things) was wealthy businessman Ace Cain, who contributed to charities in big chunks. He gave away his money through a fund in the community foundation I used to run, and I sometimes feared that his largesse would do him harm. When I explained that one donation was so large that he could carry it forward four years for charitable tax purposes, he put his hand gently on my arm. “Let’s not spoil this beautiful moment with pragmatism,” Ace said.

These beautiful moments of charity, suffused with what some scientists call “the warm glow of altruism,” are extremely powerful, linked to oxytocin (often called the “cuddle hormone”), which works in our brains to makes us feel trust, empathy and generosity, opening our hearts and our checkbooks.

Fortunately for us, oxytocin is an equal-opportunity hormone, filling the brain pans of the rich and poor alike. The charitable impulse is not a wedge issue, a fight between the 99% and the 1%, although some pundits would make it so. And the undercurrent of the debate, never fully stated, is the tax deduction for charitable donations.

The first shot, in an article in the Atlantic by former NPR-chief Ken Stern, used giving as a percentage of income to judge generosity. He said, without citing a source, that in 2011, the rich gave only 1.3% of their income while the poor gave 3.2%. He also cited a Chronicle of Philanthropy study that measured giving and income by ZIP Codes, and concluded that the poor are more generous than the rich. Then he essentially asked a rhetorical question: If the charitable tax deduction is regressive and favors the rich, who then actually give less, why have a charitable tax deduction?

This infuriated Howard Husock of the Manhattan Institute, who fired back in Forbes that the wealthy give far more than the 1.3% of income ascribed to them in the Atlantic article. Husock is almost certainly correct: Gifts from bequests and estates totaled more than $20 billion in 2010, and those gifts all come from the wealthy — poor people don’t have estates. Of course, estimates of gifts from lower-income people are also probably understated because most lower-income people take the standard deduction on their income tax forms and don’t itemize their charitable contributions. Husock didn’t stop there, unfortunately, pointing out that 1.3% of $1 million is a lot more money than 4% of $30,000 — which is true but smug.

There are many people (myself included) who believe the federal charitable tax deduction does not stimulate giving. But I sincerely believe it doesn’t hurt giving either, and it has precisely nothing to do with the fact that some poor people are generous and some wealthy people are penurious. It would be very sad if the charitable tax deduction becomes the playing field upon which advocates for the poor and defenders of the wealthy choose to duke it out.

With tax day upon us, this is one of the few times of the year when most of us think about the charitable tax deduction one way or the other. So let’s not beat each other over the head with it. Mrs. Lumarda never got a tax deduction for her generosity; Ace Cain did, but it was the somewhat counterintuitive act of altruism that sustained them both. The charitable tax deduction is just chicken soup — it doesn’t hurt, it may not help, but it adds to the warm glow.

Jack Shakely is a novelist, a former newspaper editor and the president emeritus of the California Community Foundation.