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Are Americans Selfish? The Bond Between Faith, Philanthropy and Healthy Democracies

Recorded on February 16, 2005

Location: The Heritage Foundation's Lehrman Auditorium

The recent tsunami disaster in South Asia exposed much misinformation about the strength of American generosity. In truth, 70 percent of Americans give to charity each year, and do so at far higher levels than people in other developed nations: three times as much as the British, four times as much as the French, and seven times as much as the Germans. Still, a substantial minority of Americans - more than 80 million - do not support any charitable causes. Why not?

Arthur C. Brooks, Associate Professor of Public Administration at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Public Affairs, argues that charitable behavior is closely linked to religious practice and attitudes about the government's role in society. Americans who regularly attend houses of worship are much more likely to donate time or money - including to secular organizations - than their secularist counterparts. In addition, those who believe that government should redistribute income are far less likely to give voluntarily to help others. This helps explain why, compared to the United States, European states (mostly social democratic and secularist) see low levels of private giving. Dr. Brooks offers a stiff warning to politicians and policymakers who fail to view voluntary charity as a vital component of a healthy democracy.

Dr. Brooks, Director of the Nonprofit Studies Program at the Maxwell School, has published over 75 articles on charitable giving and nonprofit organizations, including contributions to The Public Interest, Policy Review, and the Wall Street Journal. His forthcoming book is entitled Selfishness in America.