Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Who Really Cares? (An Economist Asks)

In a new book, an economist takes a scholarly look at charitable giving - perhaps a topic of interest during this season when many people make end-of-year contributions to charities and exchange gifts with one another. He’s begun to stir up some controversy about both his conclusions and his methods.

Arthur C. Brooks wrote: Who Really Cares: The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism. A long article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy (11/23/06) discusses the key points of the book, and it offers opinions from experts - some who agree with, and others who disagree with, Brooks' conclusions. (So far, I have only read the Chronicle's article, not the book itself.)

Professor Brooks sought to discover whether differences exist in the charitable giving patterns of liberals and conservatives. In the course of his research, he discovered that one’s liberal/conservative orientation does relate to giving, but being religious or non-religious has an even stronger effect. Overall, he asserts that religious people tend to donate more money, and to donate more of their time to community organizations, than do non-religious people. (Again, I have not read the book and have not seen his original findings. However, it appears that, even after accounting for the fact that most personal charity goes to religious institutions, religious people still tend to give more to secular organizations than do non-religious people.)

The article in the Chronicle emphasizes some key conclusions that Brooks made concerning “religiousness” and “liberalism/conservatism”, based on his analysis of 15 sets of data: "Religious conservatives are far more charitable than secular liberals." "Those that support the idea that government should redistribute income are among the least likely to dig into their own wallets to help others." "Religious people gave three and a half times as much as secular people." "Giving makes one happier and healthier." He sounds like a person with some opinions!

What fascinates me, as a researcher, is the statement from Mr. Brooks concerning how the data transformed his pre-conceived notions: "When I started doing research, I expected to find that political liberals - who I believed genuinely cared more about others than conservatives did - would turn out to be the most privately charitable people. So when my early findings led to the opposite conclusion, I assumed I had made some sort of technical error. I re-ran analyses. I got new data. Nothing worked. In the end, I had no option but to change my views..."

Professor Brooks' book includes maps of the United States. One map shows states that voted to elect George Bush in 2004; another shows states where charitable giving was above the national average in 2001. The two sets of states are almost identical.

I do NOT yet have an opinion about this. Brooks' study examines charitable giving in a creative way. Some conclusions of his study will likely be validated by other research; other conclusions will likely not. A single study is rarely definitive; and even if it is, circumstances can change over time. I agree with Alan Abramson, of the Aspen Institute, that we need to examine the data more closely. Apparently, some of his critics accuse him of writing a book that uses the disguise of scholarly, dispassionate economics research to cover an attack on liberals. One way we get around this issue of "credibility" at Wilder Research is to design studies of sensitive topics with the involvement of people who hold different perspectives.

Nonetheless, his work can educate all of us about the questions that we need to raise if we want to understand what motivates people to donate money, to become engaged in civic initiatives and community organizations, and to strive to improve the future for everyone. What better things to ponder as we enter a new year!

If you have an interest in research on charitable giving (even if filled with nuances and ambiguities), you might want to take a look at the article in the Chronicle, and/or take a look at the book itself.

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