December 23, 2006
By Ryan Messmore, D.Phil.
On Monday morning, millions of Americans will gather with loved
ones to engage in a vitally important social activity: giving
They may do so to continue family tradition, or to participate
in a cultural holiday, or to celebrate the gift of a Savior.
Whatever the reason, the practice of giving taps into something
deep in the nature of the person.
Giving our time and money to others tends to have significant
implications for our individual well-being and that of our local
communities and nation. Charitable giving is associated with higher
levels of health and happiness, increased prosperity and strong
Just as significant is the way that giving and receiving gifts
shape our moral vision. Given the numerous "spillover effects" of
private giving for larger society, government has a strong interest
in ordering society in such a way that charity can flourish.
Researcher Arthur Brooks examines the benefits of giving in his
new book, "Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth about
Compassionate Conservatism." In terms of physical health and
happiness, Brooks notes that people who give more charitably are 43
percent more likely to say they are "very happy" than non-givers,
while non-givers are three and a half times more likely than givers
to report they are "not happy at all."
In addition, several large studies have also found that senior
citizens who volunteer have a 40 percent lower probability of dying
in a given year than people of the same age and health level.
Giving also increases personal and well as national prosperity.
Pointing to a survey conducted in 2000 that controlled for
education, age, race and all the other outside explanations for
giving and income increases, Brooks reports that a dollar donated
to charity was associated with $4.35 in extra income.
Of this additional income, $3.75 was due to the dollar given to
charity. At the national level, a 1 percent increase in national
giving appeared to increase real GDP by about $36 billion.
Charitable giving is important for strong local communities as
well. As Brooks explains, not only do giving and volunteering
correlate with honesty and promote bonds of trust among neighbors,
but they also sustain numerous charities providing critical
services in education, health, the arts, the environment and
disaster relief. Because such organizations can provide a buffer
against the authority of the state, suggests Brooks, giving to them
is also important for protecting freedoms and fostering democratic
In addition to charity's effects on health, happiness, income
and community life, giving's most powerful influence may lie in its
ability to shape moral vision. The practice of voluntary giving
fashions the way we see wealth, poverty, and personal obligations
toward those in need.
Without charity, Americans would become more dependent on
impersonal government for a vast array of services. This, in turn,
would foster a social relationship where one side perceives aid as
a forced penalty rather than a voluntary offering and the other
side views aid as a right rather than a gift.
Impersonal government checks can foster a mentality that
undercuts the motivation to feel or give gratitude when received.
In contrast, gifts create a kind of momentum of good will, which
has the potential to bind both giver and receiver into a more
personal relationship. Interestingly, Brooks found that people are
much more likely to give away money they earn than money they
receive from the government. Voluntary giving and receiving beget
more charitable ways of seeing and living in the world.
In sum, these financial and non-financial advantages demonstrate
that giving is good not only for the receiver, but also for the
giver -- as well as the giving society. Government therefore has an
obligation to make policy that is conducive to Americans'
charitable spirit. Policy should clear the way for citizens to act
upon their generosity with ease. Government should not make it
difficult to engage in charitable and civic activities through
burdensome legal requirements, punitive mandatory expenditures,
bureaucratic red tape and controversial hiring practices.
Government should provide the fair, legal space in which
faith-based charitable organizations can meet social needs.
Government can also influence charitable giving through its
economic and welfare policies.
According to Brooks, government entitlement programs have a
negative impact on charity -- they drive giving down among both
rich and poor. On average, a working poor family is more than twice
as likely to give -- and gives more than three times as much money
-- and almost twice as likely to volunteer as a family receiving
roughly the same amount on welfare.
What stands out from Brooks' research, however, is that the mere
support for income redistribution policies tends to substitute for
giving. In a 1996 General Social Survey, those who disagreed with
the question, "The government has a responsibility to reduce income
inequality" gave more to every type of cause and charity, including
nonreligious charities, human welfare agencies, and traditionally
liberal causes such as the environment and the arts. This trend
holds whether or not the government actually implements a policy to
Public policy should reflect the importance of charity in
America. In short, when it comes to economic inequality, liberal
political opinions seem to substitute for private action. Because
research reveals that giving leads to greater prosperity and a
higher quality of life for the poor, the national debate concerning
poverty should consider the significance of private charity in
addressing this question.
The Christmas season reminds us that wise men give gifts. Giving
sets off a cycle of blessing that benefits giver, receiver, and
society alike. A wise government knows that is something its
policies cannot replicate, but must respect.
Ryan Messmore in the William E. Simon Fellow in the DeVos
Center for Religion and Civil Society at The Heritage
First appeared in FOXNews.com
On Monday morning, millions of Americans will gather with loved ones to engage in a vitally important social activity: giving gifts.
Ryan Messmore, D.Phil.
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