The Magazine

Faith, Hope, and Charity

Who gives to whom, and why.

Jan 22, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 18 • By MARTIN MORSE WOOSTER
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Who Really Cares

The Surprising Truth About Compassionate Conservatism:

America's Charity Divide--Who Gives, Who Doesn't, and Why it Matters

by Arthur C. Brooks

Basic Books, 256 pp., $26

Ever since the New Deal, a well-worn piece of equipment in the liberal tool kit of debating points is the notion that liberals are more compassionate than conservatives because they want to raise taxes on the rich in the name of helping the poor.

Conservatives, the liberals insist, are skinflints. Instead of aiding the less fortunate, the left says, right-wingers wallow in wealth. They're Scrooges and Social Darwinists who cheer on the fat cats while kicking away the bottom rungs of the social ladder so that poor people never have a chance to advance.

Leftists, by contrast, believe they're the people in America who are the most compassionate. They're so concerned about the poor that they want to raise taxes on the rich to strengthen the safety net.

These liberal shibboleths have been somewhat weakened by the welfare reform legislation of 1996. But it's an easy prediction to say that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi will rally their fellow Democrats this year by railing against the Republicans as misers who want to make the rich richer and the poor more miserable.

How accurate are these arguments? Are liberals more compassionate than conservatives? The answer, says Arthur C. Brooks in this thoughtful and engaging book, is no. All the evidence, he argues, suggests that conservatives are more generous than liberals.

Despite the subtitle, Who Really Cares is not a book about "compassionate conservatism," if you define this term to be the Bush administration's policies towards aiding faith-based charities. Although Brooks has some thoughtful suggestions about how government can increase giving, he really isn't that concerned about federal policy. Rather, this is a book about what current social science tells us about who gives to charities and why people give.

Brooks, who teaches public administration at Syracuse, brings several formidable skills to his task. He's expert at sorting through dense, well-established social surveys and discovering what research within them is worth writing about. Most of us, after all, don't read the University of Michigan's Panel Study of Income Dynamics or the University of Chicago's General Social Survey for fun. We need interpreters, and Brooks is very good at interpreting the available evidence.

Readers should also be aware that Brooks's argument about conservatives being more charitable comes with one important caveat. There is a strong correlation between religious faith and charity. The more religious you are, the more likely you are to give to charity. (Europe's fading churches, by the way, are one reason Europeans are far less likely to give and to volunteer than Americans are.)

Brooks sees "four forces in American life that are primarily responsible for making Americans charitable. These forces are religion, skepticism about the role of government in economic life, strong families, and personal entrepreneurism."

These beliefs, he contends, aren't just limited to the right. There are plenty of churchgoing liberals with strong marriages who are big givers to charity. "The truth," Brooks writes, "is that conservatives only tend to be more religious and charitable than liberals." But Brooks shows that the beliefs held by the most generous Americans are far more likely to be held by the right than by the left.

This tendency towards conservatives being more generous produces some striking findings. One of them is that the redder the state is, the more likely its residents are to be charitable. Twenty-four of the 25 most generous states were red ones (only Maryland was a charitably minded blue state). The five states that gave more than 60 percent of their votes to President Bush in 2004 are ones whose residents give 3.5 percent of their incomes to charity, nearly twice as much per person as residents of the five states (including the District of Columbia) where John Kerry got 60 percent or better. This finding, Brooks reports, occurs even though residents of the deep-blue pro-Kerry states, on average, earned 38 percent more per household than their red-state counterparts.