“It is the poor, not the rich, who are inclined to charity.”

That’s a quote from The Economist article, “Wealth, poverty and compassion. The rich are different from you and me: They are more selfish.”

It says,

Life at the bottom is nasty, brutish and short. For this reason, heartless folk might assume that people in the lower social classes will be more self-interested and less inclined to consider the welfare of others than upper-class individuals, who can afford a certain noblesse oblige. A recent study, however, challenges this idea. Experiments by Paul Piff and his colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley, reported this week in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, suggest precisely the opposite. It is the poor, not the rich, who are inclined to charity.

For more on the experiment that Piff ran, see the article.  The conclusion to the first experiment was this:

An analysis of the results showed that generosity increased as participants’ assessment of their own social status fell. Those who rated themselves at the bottom of the ladder gave away 44% more of their credits than those who put their crosses at the top, even when the effects of age, sex, ethnicity and religiousness had been accounted for.

The results of the second experiment were this:

The researchers then asked participants to indicate what percentage of a person’s income should be spent on charitable donations. They found that both real lower-class participants and those temporarily induced to rank themselves as lower class felt that a greater share of a person’s salary should be used to support charity.

Upper-class participants said 2.1% of incomes should be donated. Lower-class individuals felt that 5.6% was the appropriate slice. Upper-class participants who were induced to believe they were lower class suggested 3.1%. And lower-class individuals who had been “psychologically promoted” thought 3.3% was about right.

The results of the third experiment:

The researchers then measured their reaction to another participant (actually a research associate) who turned up late and thus needed help with the experimental procedure.

In this case priming made no difference to the lower classes. They always showed compassion to the latecomer. The upper classes, though, could be influenced. Those shown a compassion-inducing video behaved in a more sympathetic way than those shown emotionally neutral footage. That suggests the rich are capable of compassion, if somebody reminds them, but do not show it spontaneously.

And the article concludes thus:

One interpretation of all this might be that selfish people find it easier to become rich. Some of the experiments Dr Piff conducted, however, sorted people by the income of the family in which the participant grew up. This revealed that whether high status was inherited or earned made no difference—so the idea that it is the self-made who are especially selfish does not work. Dr Piff himself suggests that the increased compassion which seems to exist among the poor increases generosity and helpfulness, and promotes a level of trust and co-operation that can prove essential for survival during hard times.

The experiment group was 115 people – not a deal breaker.  But the results are interesting.  They don’t attempt to explain WHY it is this way, either in regards to the rich folks who don’t like to help out the less fortunate or the poor(er) who do.

But there are other stats from other places that matter to this discussion.  And this is not an un-established fact.

From Philanthropy News Digest (May 2009):

Recent surveys have found that not only do the poor donate more per capita than individuals in higher income brackets, but that their generosity tends to remain higher during economic downturns, McClatchy Newspapers reports.

The latest survey of consumer expenditures by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the poorest one-fifth of American households contributed an average of 4.3 percent of their income to charitable organizations in 2007, while the richest fifth donated 2.1 percent of their income. The pretax household income of the poorest fifth averaged $10,531 in 2007, while the top fifth averaged $158,388. The discrepancy is even more notworthy because charitable gifts from the poor are effectively not tax-deductible because the poor don’t earn enough to justify itemizing their deductions.

While the poorest Americans tend to be the least educated and most likely to be on welfare, the ranks of the poor also include a large number of women, who tend to be more generous than men. Moreover, the working poor — a disproportionate number of whom are recent immigrants — are America’s most generous group, according to Arthur Brooks, author of Who Really Cares and president of the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, a conservative think tank.

Here’s an article by Arthur Brooks (see last quote) from April/May 2008, where he says:

Yet when we measure monetary giving as a percentage of income in order to ascertain the level of one’s “sacrifice,” we find a surprising result: it is low-income working families that are the most generous group in America, giving away about 4.5 percent of their income on average. This compares to about 2.5 percent among the middle class, and 3 percent among high-income families.

This is such an important thing to know about US citizens when we think of who gives and who takes in our society.  Who exactly is it that is being selfish in this country?


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