Saturday, 21 August 2010

Are The Poor Really More Charitable?

A fact that I’ve come across in a couple of different contexts in the last few weeks is that the rich give a smaller proportion of their income to charity than the poor. According to the most recent such survey by the Charities Aid Foundation (albeit from 2002), the bottom 10% of the income distribution gave 3% of their weekly household spending to charity; the top 20% just 0.7%.
It is certainly a fascinating finding. But I’m a bit wary of drawing the obvious conclusion, that the poor are somehow more virtuous and altruistic than the rich. There is some evidence that the poor are inclined to be more charitable: see Berkley psychologist Paul Piff’s recent research. Nevertheless, I am not convinced that this tells the whole story.
The crude data overlooks the fact that most people do not think about charitable donations in the same way as the study. Most people could give you a clear idea of how much money they give to charity (£10 a month, £200 a year), but few could tell you off the top of their heads what proportion of their income this constitutes.
This is significant. Imagine a rich person earning £100 000 a year were comparing their charitable activities with a poor person earning £10 000 a year. If the rich person saw that they were donating £700 a year, and that the poor person gave away £300, they would most likely see little cause for embarrassment, and little reason to change their behaviour. The chances are that they would never even realise that proportionately, the poor person is four times as generous. And that doesn’t even take into consideration that poorer individuals have to spend a higher proportion of their income on essentials, such as food and clothing. This means that their sacrifice is greater: the poor have fewer luxuries, but are still more willing to give them up than the rich.
Our ideas of our moral obligations owe a lot to how we see others behave, and to the expectations others have of us. The problem with charity, essentially, is that we are continually told that anything will do, being mightily praised for the merest contribution. Moreover, charities regularly request fixed contributions that have to be accessible to everyone. The result is that giving £2 a month leaves you feeling as if you have done your bit, regardless of whether it comes out of a monthly budget of £200 or £2000.
The answer, clearly, is to define more clearly what ‘doing your bit’ entails. In almost any other context, doing your bit involves making greater demands on those more able to bear them. There is no reason why charity should not be the same. How this is to be done is trickier: social and cultural change are invariably difficult to engineer.
Interestingly, the Conservative party’s policy paper on volunteering (downloadable here)identifies exactly this problem, and sees the solution as the ‘establishment of a pro-social norm’ of giving 1% of income to charity. They’re not particularly clear as to how they intend to achieve this (ruling out the government, of course: “in the post-bureaucratic age, governments should not first reach for legislation to pursue collective goals”).
I’m willing to be a little more candid about the difficulty of changing attitudes. However, publicising these figures and openly questioning the way we behave seem the only way.

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