Who’s More Generous, the Haves or the Have Nots?

I attended a Rotary Auction last week which raised money for scholarships and support to the ARC; Galena Arts and Recreation Center. It was a great success.

I have never seen so much generosity as after relocating to Jo Daviess County, Illinois. I’m a city girl from Chicago and was unaccustomed to such displays of generosity within a community. For example, I received a call from a local pastor and parishioner who asked how they could be of service to our clinic’s substance abuse population. They donated more than $9,000 for Narcan kits to keep them alive in the case of an opioid overdose. As another example, our county public transit system agreed to help our clients access treatment by crossing county lines which is something they had not done before. And a third example, when someone in this town suffers an injury and are uninsured, or under-insured and lacks financial resources, someone from the community organizes a fund-raiser to help cover medical costs and living expenses. It’s really quite moving and makes me proud to live here.

So it made me wonder, who’s more generous, the haves or the have nots?

In 2010, 40 billionaires announced that they’ll give at least half of their fortunes to charity. It collectively totaled $125 billion. That will make a huge difference to people in need. The rest of us non-billionaires can’t compete with that kind of money, but it turns out that we are more generous. Poor people are actually more charitable than the rich. Lower income Americans give proportionally more of their incomes to charity than do upper-income Americans.

The main variable that explains the differential pattern of giving and helping between the upper and lower class is compassion. Compassionate feelings among the lower class is seen to provoke higher levels of altruism and generosity toward others. Perhaps people in the middle and lower class spectrum have experienced hardship and are quick to help. People who have not suffered hardship may be less compassionate.

It’s not that the rich are selfish or focused on their own advancement. Members of each group will identify with other members of the group to which they belong. The rich will find it easier to give to the cultural institutions they frequent such as their preferred hospital or university. The poor will give to the people and activities they rub elbows with. For either income group, someone who has been affected by cancer will be more likely to give to cancer research.

An interesting twist is that a new study that shows that higher-income people are less generous only when they live in a place that has high levels of inequality between rich and poor. When the gap between rich and poor is low, the rich might actually be more generous. Robb Willer of Stanford University theorized that feelings of entitlement might help high-income people justify their extreme good fortune to themselves – and may, in turn, reduce their generosity because people who believe they are more important than others also believe that resources rightfully belong to them. High inequality might lead higher-income people to worry more about losing their elevated status, and therefore hoard their money.

When it comes to giving to charity, women are more generous, especially when it comes to decisions about volunteer time and smaller financial donations. Large financial donations are often made jointly with men.

Generational differences affect the type of giving. Millennials are giving to educational and art/culture causes at higher rates.

For those without the financial means to give, volunteering can be a great way to be generous without writing a check. This may be true of retirees who might be on a fixed income but have free time and valuable skills to share.

So, are you feeling generous? There is plenty of need out there.



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