Saturday, August 04, 2007

Our philanthropic neighbours

The London Free Press
By Rory Leishman

Compared to the people of the United States, we Canadians are far more generous in supporting the poor, the sick, the needy and other worthy causes, right?

Actually, that assumption is completely false. In a recent study of generosity in Canada and the United States, the Fraser Institute found that charitable donations amount to 1.67 per cent of aggregate income in the United States as compared to just 0.72 per cent in Canada.

This is not to suggest that Canadians are unusually stingy. In Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism, Arthur C. Brooks, a professor in the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University, reports that the people of the United States also give more than twice as much of their income to charity as the British and Dutch, almost three times as much as the French, more than five times as much as the Germans, and more than 10 times as much as the Italians.

As in Canada, so in every country of Western Europe, the percentage of personal income donated to charity is less than half the level in the United States. Why is that? Why are the peoples of Canada and Western Europe so much less generous than the people of the United States?

One prime factor is the extraordinarily high percentage of committed Christians in the United States. In a recent survey of attitudes in the countries of Europe and North America, the Pew Research Centre found that the proportion of the population for whom religion is “very important” amounts to 59 per cent in the United States as compared to just 30 per cent in Canada, 33 per cent in Britain, 27 per cent in Italy and a mere 11 per cent in France.

Brooks has found that there is a strong and specific correlation between religious faith and support for charity. He relates that: “All across Europe, we find that religious citizens are more than twice as likely to volunteer for charities and causes as secularists.”

In the United States, religious people who say they devote “a great deal of effort” to their spiritual lives are 42 percentage points more likely to contribute to charity than secularists who have little or no religious faith. Moreover, religious Americans do not just give to their churches: They are also significantly more likely than secular Americans to donate money and time to non-religious charities such as the United Way.

Brooks has also found a strong and specific correlation between political ideology and charity. In both the United States and Europe, conservatives who believe in limited government are far more likely to make charitable contributions than are liberals who think government has a responsibility to reduce income inequality.

Note the irony: Liberals who support the governmental redistribution of income are apt to deride conservatives as selfish, yet these liberals are far less likely than conservatives to donate their own time and money to help the poor and needy. Of course, there are subsets within both groups: For example, religious liberals are a lot more generous than secular conservatives.

Many of the liberals who give little or nothing to charity attempt to justify their selfishness on the ground that government is more effective than private charity at redistributing income. Perhaps so, but at what cost? When Bob Rae’s New Democratic Party government of Ontario increased welfare benefits in the middle of a recession at the beginning of the 1990s, the predictable result was a crisis of soaring welfare dependency that demoralized thousands of workers and disrupted their families.

Brooks persuasively argues that the combination of relatively small government and high rates of charitable givings has contributed to the extraordinary economic prosperity and relatively high living standards for all income classes in the United States. And he also contends that it’s no coincidence that unlike Canada and Europe, the United States, the world’s most Christian and conservative democracy, has avoided a calamitous drop in birth rates.

Canadians might well meditate upon Brooks’s findings: Perhaps, with more religious conviction and less reliance on big government, we, too, might also become more generous, more prosperous and less reliant on massive levels of immigration to sustain the population.

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