In a recent study published in Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, four scholars of philanthropy and public policy marshal tax data from more than 3,000 counties to paint a new picture of partisan giving.
In the past, such studies have tended to chase easy headlines, claiming broadly that Republicans give more money to charitable causes than Democrats do. But by categorizing charity as either “voluntary giving” (i.e., direct charitable donations) or what they call “involuntary giving” (i.e., taxes), the NVSQ study authors present a more balanced account of overall giving patterns across various jurisdictions. (One might object to the authors’ method here, and undoubtedly there are some important differences between direct giving and taxation, but both are ultimately methods of wealth redistribution. And the Times’ Paul Sullivan is right, I think, that most people do take this into account when deciding where to live: “Opting to live in those counties [i.e., those counties that tax at higher rates] shows a willingness to be taxed and have the government support causes they believe in.”)
The study also found, unsurprisingly, that private charity can be more responsive to local need and flexible in terms of programming than federal aid programs. On the other hand, even robust private charity can’t completely replace federal funding—the government is simply able to invest at higher rates than private organizations. “They’re complementary means of redistribution […] rather than substitutions for each other,” says one of the study’s authors, Robert Christensen of Brigham Young University. Again, this is hardly surprising.
What is altogether more interesting about the authors’ findings here is that, according to their analysis of the data, partisans become less philanthropic when they’re not in the majority. That is to say, Republicans give less in blue counties, and vice versa. Dr Christensen speculates that this reluctance may be born of perceived social pressures, and that increased confidence to give therefore comes from, at least in part, a sense of social homogeneity. Dr Christensen explains: “If I’m a Republican [e.g.] and only in the minority, my preferences are not held in common or high regard. When they’re in the majority, they feel they can share their wealth this way.”
Related to this is another finding—that in competitive districts, where partisan advantage is more or less balanced between both parties, giving decreases. One reason for this may be that as political acrimony increases, people withdraw into themselves and lose the urge to support broader social causes.
The study doesn’t detail where charitable dollars go (i.e., whether they go to support local or national or even international causes), so it’s difficult to tell if either Republicans or Democrats are more prone to philanthrolocalism. Another of the study’s authors, Rebecca Nesbit of the University of Georgia, notes here that the study also doesn’t distinguish between purely altruistic giving and what’s called ‘consumptive philanthropy’, in which people give to causes or institutions that directly benefit themselves.
It’s axiomatic that partisan identity and political attitudes affect charitable choices—the people donating to Planned Parenthood are likely not the same people supporting the Heritage Foundation, for instance. What is troubling about this study’s findings, however, is that political division influences and even interrupts the very decision to give upon which civil society depends.
Add the name of one more victim to our ongoing Culture Wars: Charity.