The most visible conversations about generosity circulate among the wealthy. My inbox is pinged daily with newsletters about giving well and doing well. Bill Gates’s Giving Pledge has gained notable attention for rallying the world’s wealthiest individuals to give most of their treasure to philanthropy. The wealthy have a surplus, so it only makes sense to talk about how to give well from that surplus.

But what about generosity among the poor?

Before going further, revisiting the meaning of the word generosity is instructive. Generosity refers primarily to a noble and beneficent spirit. Furthermore, its root “gen” means to beget or give birth to something. The word generosity, then, suggests that by extending a part of ourselves to another person, we might excite a similar inclination in them. Our daily interactions show that it is commonplace for individuals to reciprocate kind actions toward those who help them or to “pay forward” kindnesses to a third party. These actions are, in a sense, begotten from some first mover.

In other words, generosity is a virtue of which monetary gift is only a part, and it is just as available to the poor as it is to the rich. The difference, though, is that those who give of themselves liberally in the midst of want do something peculiar, even extraordinary. Understanding why and how these individuals give may elicit insights into the profundity of the virtue, or at the very least, inspire those of us with means to go and do likewise.

The idea is not new. Jesus Christ drew attention to the generous poor 2,000 years ago:

And He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury. And He saw a poor widow putting in two small copper coins. And He said, “Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all of them; for they all out of their surplus put into the offering; but she out of her poverty put in all that she had to live on.”  (Luke 21:1-4 NASB)

As Jesus suggested, the widow’s gift had such gravity not only because of the proportion of her giving but the spirit of the gift—it was grounded in love, trust and sincerity. We can’t know for sure, but since she gave all that she had to live on, it’s likely that with her giving she abandoned her next meal. In contrast, though a wealthy man may give an extraordinary proportion of his wealth to philanthropy, he will still go to sleep in a nice home with a full belly and most of his needs met.

A modern day version of the biblical widow might be found with Oseola McCarthy, one of the Philanthropy Roundtable’s hall of famers. In 1908 McCarthy was born to a single-parent household as a result of rape. Around the age of twelve, she dropped out of school to care for her mother, who had fallen sick, and to work as a washerwoman. Until she retired at age eighty-six, McCarthy made a modest living scrubbing clothes by hand on a rub board—even after automatic washer-dryers became common place.

Through all her years of work, McCarthy saved about $280,000. She kept enough to live on and donated the rest immediately upon her retirement to fund scholarships for disadvantaged students at the University of Southern Mississippi. What would cause a woman in relative poverty to maintain her station even if she had the means to improve it? “My secret was contentment,” McCarthy said. “I was happy with what I had.”

Advancing the conversation further, a statistical report on American philanthropy during the Great Recession (2006 – 12) suggests that the poor and middle class increased their giving even as their incomes declined, while donations from the wealthy stagnated or declined as a proportion of their income.  

Of course, these numbers do not paint a picture of the actual nature of the gifts. There are likely plenty of poor individuals that give ineffectively; and there may be as many wealthy folk that give just as sincerely as a household down on its luck. Nevertheless, the above numbers imply that surplus wealth doesn’t necessarily lead to an open hand. In that regard, the poor may have an advantage.

A 2010 study conducted by the University of California – Berkeley suggests that the poor are more likely to give to charity than the rich because they have a keener sense of empathy with those that are in need. This sentiment translates to helpfulness, which in turn builds a safety net of trust and fellow-feeling to rely on during hard times.

Let me emphasize that none of this is to say that the wealthy are greedy and the poor are virtuous—both have their virtues and vices. Neither group is homogeneous in the character of their giving; however, by looking at a virtuous act in the midst of an adverse circumstance, we can get a better glimpse into the possibilities that generosity presents for individuals and communities to flourish.

Where are these generous poor, then? My guess is that they are hard to find. You won’t find their names carved on buildings, or often featured in mainstream publications. They won’t have websites measuring their effectiveness, or opportunities to present keynote talks at global conferences. I suspect they are in our neighborhoods busy with quietly carrying on their work to see that others have opportunities beyond what they themselves were given.