A Modest Proposal: Give It Away

By the Rev. John Jackman

This editorial first appeared in the Winston-Salem Journal on December 11, 2010. Subscribers can access the Journal version HERE.

I have a modest Christmas proposal for the wealthiest Americans who just had their tax cuts extended for the next two years:  give it away.  And don’t give it to your already-wealthy alma mater to build a hall named after you.  Give it to an organization that helps the poor or an organization that helps the poorest Americans train for employment or a group that helps homeless veterans. 

This extension of the tax cut will add $700 billion to the national deficit next year alone, money we are essentially borrowing from China and our grandchildren.  This on the theory that wealthy people create jobs with their wealth, a much touted urban legend that is belied by the fact that private jobs remained stagnant and even declined during the entire period this tax cut has been in place.

 I’ll tell you a poorly-kept secret that research has borne out again and again: rich people are very good at keeping their money.  Those of us involved in charity work know from practical experience that the very wealthy give away much less of their income than do the middle class and poor, who apparently have greater empathy for the problems and suffering of the impoverished.   Recent research at the University of California has documented a “compassion deficit” among the wealthiest Americans, whose wealth is often used to buffer them from the harsh realities of the lives of others.  But this buffering and wealth seldom makes them happier; in fact the opposite is the karmic reality.  In a study published last month in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Paul K. Piff and Michael W. Kraus found that lower-income people were more generous, charitable, trusting, and helpful to others than those with greater wealth.  In contrast, interviews with “upper class” subjects whose taxable income was over $150,000 per year revealed values that “prioritized their own need” over that of others.  There are certainly many exceptions, shining examples of generosity among the wealthy (I’m privileged to know some of them) but they are the exception not the rule.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, last year the poorest households in the United States gave on average 4.3 percent of their income while the richest fifth gave just 2.1 percent of their income.  And when the wealthy make donations, they are more likely to donate lump sums to an alma mater or some other tax exempt nonprofit like a hospital that will honor the donor publicly than to support a food pantry or homeless shelter.  And this isn’t a Republican-Democrat issue, I’m afraid.  Vice-President Joe Biden and his wife, who together made $319,853 in 2008, reported charitable donations of only $995 that year, about 0.3% of their income.  And that was by far the highest amount they had reported in over a decade.  The Obamas do much better, giving away 5.2% of their income; John McCain is a champion giver among politicos, giving away almost a quarter of his reported income.

This Christmas, let me join with Warren Buffet and Bill Gates in a challenge:  give it away.  You won’t miss it, and the action may in fact enrich your life far beyond the dollars that are involved.  If your heart is still three sizes too small to do that, at least try out being an angel investor for a local business startup that will actually create some jobs – make the urban legend a reality!

You don’t need that extra $45,000 to put gas in the Ferrari to get to work, or to pay the utility bill.  You don’t need more Louis Vitton in the closet or an extra room on the second vacation home.  This year, there are formerly middle class folks having to visit food pantries for the first time in their lives, there are families that have no heat and children whose only meal is the free one they get at school.  This year, there is less help available in heat assistance and in food pantries because donations have dropped with the economy – at the same time demand and need has increased dramatically.  This year, give that “free money” to help someone who really needs it.  And better yet, go volunteer a few of your free hours helping out at that food pantry or homeless shelter. 

The Rev. John Jackman is a pastor, author, and filmmaker who lives in Lewisville.  He currently serves as senior pastor at Trinity Moravian Church in Winston-Salem.

This article also appeared in the Greensboro News & Record on December 19, 2010: