States Generosity

The Chronicle of Philanthropy released some interesting figures on the charitable giving habits of U.S. states. Paradoxically, Mississippi, despite being the state with the lowest per capita income, ranked second in charitable giving (defined as percentage of income given). Mississippians gave 7.6% of their income to charity. Similarly, Utah (46th in per capita income) was first in giving, with the top ten givers rounded out by Alabama (42nd), Tennessee (34th), South Carolina (48th), Idaho (49th), Arkansas (45th), Georgia (40th) and North Carolina (38th).

Conversely, some of the wealthiest states gave the least. New Hampshire is 9th in per capita income, but 50th in giving. Other states that earn a bunch but give relatively little include Massachusetts (2nd in income, 47th in giving), Rhode Island (14th in income, 46th in giving), Connecticut (1st in income, 45th in giving), and my home state of New Jersey (3rd in income, 42nd in giving). The only state in both the top 10 in charitable giving and per capita income was Maryland.

     Withholding charity dollars while building big government programs betrays a kind of cold paternalism.

So why do residents of the poorest states give the most money? At first glance, it doesn’t make sense.  Don’t the poorest citizens need to most tightly cling to their wealth?

As Arthur Brooks once noticed, the most important explanation is a religious one. If we look at this Gallup poll, we see that 8 of the top 10 states in giving are also are in the top 10 of Gallup’s “most religious” states. Similarly, 7 of the 10 states which gave the least made it into Gallup’s “least religious” designation. It’s not a coincidence that Mississippi took the top spots in giving and religiosity, in spite of their high rates of poverty.

Apparently, huge numbers of Southerners are acting like the widow with her mite, and giving to philanthropic causes a portion of what little they may have. And the South, of course, is home to huge numbers of evangelical Christians, who work to mimic Christ’s sacrificial behavior and live under a biblical mandate of faithful stewardship. These high rates of sacrificial giving attest not only to the depth of conviction, but also to the necessity of helping one’s fellow man.

The real irony here is that many states on the bottom end of the giving scale are unambiguously blue states—places which are today more secular and affluent than red states. Progressives often claim the moral high ground during political debates with their support for programs like the expansion of government-based healthcare and student aid, higher minimum wages and environmental regulation. But withholding charity dollars while building big government programs betrays a kind of cold paternalism.

Charitable giving is imbued with a notion of self-sacrifice on behalf of fellow man. Progressives may understand support for high taxes and a broad government-based social safety net as philanthropy. But that kind of “philanthropy” is objectionable. Not only can it never keep pace with the ever-escalating costs of the administrative state, but, unlike religiously motivated charitable giving, it also fails to build another, eternal kind of kingdom.