The measurement of ones character can be determined by how they treat someone who can do nothing for them.
One of the favorite arguments that gets trotted out during discussions about income inequality is that the rich are more charitable. The rich, so the argument goes, will do a better job of helping the poor through philanthropy than the government can through social programs. Well, we can drop-kick that fallacy right through the goal posts of truth. Set it up and hold it steady, here we go…
A recent study published by Dr. Paul Piff, a psychologist at UC Berkeley (cue the “liberal bias” claims), shows that the wealthy are actually less generous. Dr. Piff concluded that:
“While having money doesn’t necessarily make anybody anything, the rich are way more likely to prioritize their own self-interests above the interests of other people.” They are, he continued, “more likely to exhibit characteristics that we would stereotypically associate with, say, assholes.”(source)
Wow. Talk about a straight-talker! His study showed that people with lower incomes, who identify themselves as relatively low on the social ladder, are more generous than upper-class people. In fact, the poor and lower-middle-class give an average of 3.2% of their income while the rich give only 1.2% of theirs. Do some math there and realize that 3.2% of, say, $17,000 ($544) is a much larger chunk, relatively speaking, than 1.2% of $1 million ($12,000). Remember, too, that the rich can take this largesse as tax deductions whereas the poor do not itemize and get no deduction.
The difference between the beneficiaries of people’s charity is also quite stark. The poor tend to donate to social programs and religious organizations. The rich, on the other hand, give to colleges, museums and the arts. Of the 50 biggest single donations in 2012, not one went to a social-service charity or or one that helps the poor and dispossessed. Not United Way. Not the Salvation Army. Not Feeding America… not one. So much for the free market taking care of everyone. While the top 2% had their boats lifted on the rising tide, the rest of us are stuck in the mud.
But, I hear some of you asking, what about Bill Gates or Warren Buffet? They donate vast amounts of their wealth and they’re rich! Don’t they count? First of all, we are talking about an average. The average amount given by the rich is 1.2% – the key word here being average. Without Gates and Buffet, that would be much lower. Gates and Buffet also have their own foundations so their charitable donations don’t count as donations in the way we usually think of them. They give to their foundations and the foundations dole out the gifts. That method is not analogous to the way the poor give. One can’t do an honest study without keeping the metrics equal.
There is a glimmer of hope, though. In Dr. Piff’s study, he showed both groups – rich and poor – a video on child poverty. This raised the compassion behavior of the rich group to the point where their desire to help was the same as those in the poor group. It could be that part of the problem – the biggest part, perhaps – is the isolation of the rich. The phrase “out-of-touch” was bandied about a lot in the 2012 elections. But it really may be that the more insulated one is from other people, from humanity, the less they care about them. A study by The Chronicle of Philanthropy supports this idea. They did a comparison of charitable giving by ZIP code and found that less affluent areas gave more to social charities than more upscale addresses did. Wealthy people who lived in more diverse neighborhoods were more generous than those who lived in more exclusive ones. So exposure to and awareness of the needy may make a big difference
If you are interested in knowing how your ZIP code fare, The Chronicle of Philanthropy website has an interactive map. You can look at total contributions, contributions by household, discretionary income by household and percentage of income given by household. I am proud to say that my ZIP code donates 4.10% of our incomes to charity, higher than the average. We also rank 5,123 out of 28,725 for total contributions. Well done!
So our take-away here should be not that the rich are assholes (though some undoubtedly are – looking at you, Trump!) but that if we expose the affluent to what they don’t see, it might help them understand that suffering is real. We know that those who can afford it the least help others the most. Maybe it’s because we (hey, I’m only middle-class) know what it is to not have enough money for essentials, let alone special purchases. We know that one small catastrophe – a broken furnace, a wrecked car, a sudden illness – could ruin us, leaving us homeless and destitute. We understand that feeling so we extend our generosity to those in need because of empathy. Some of us believe in “what goes around, comes around” or even “we reap what we sow.” Some of us are doing what our religion asks that we do (don’t get me started on the fact that many of the selfish rich profess to be Christian). Some of us just like to help people. I like to think that we help because we have discovered our better natures and exercise them whenever possible. Besides, you just never know who will be able to return the favor.
T. Steelman is a life-long Liberal. She has been writing online about politics since 2007. She lives in Western Washington with her husband, daughter, 2 cats and a small herd of alpacas. How can anybody be enlightened? Truth is, after all, so poorly lit…