Tahlequah Daily Press

August 31, 2012

Middle class, not 1 percent, props up our charities


TAHLEQUAH — A study released last week by the Chronicle of Philanthropy probably won’t reveal many surprises for Cherokee Countians who head up or volunteer for charitable agencies. Still, it does include a few noteworthy details, which you can check out yourself at http://tinyurl.com/8pur7ow.

For instance, states whose citizens are less religious than those of other states are comparatively tight-fisted when it comes to charitable giving. This could have something to do with religious upbringing. Based on scriptural imperatives, many Christian churches are encouraged to “tithe” 10 percent of their incomes (whether discretionary or total depends on the denomination) to their churches. Roman Catholics are urged to “give alms” of collectively about that percentage to both the church and worthy charities.

 The survey showed that Utah – base of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints – was the most generous, with the average resident donating 10.6 of his or her discretionary income to charity (but 3.9 percent of total income). The stingiest state was New Hampshire, parting with just 2.5 percent of total income. With the average U.S. donations being 4.7 percent of total income, Oklahoma does a little better; on average, we donate about 5.6 percent of our total income.

Given the religious quotient, one might expect “red states” to donate more than “blue states,” and that is, indeed, what happens – not because of party lines, but because red states tend to have more religious folks living in them. However, people in blue states profess to be more willing to pay extra taxes to help the less fortunate than their neighbors in red states. This would seem to indicate different ways of thinking in terms of how people help their needy peers: through government mandates, or willingness to donate of their own volition.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the survey, however, deals with the wealthiest Americans – the so-called “job creators” – and how they address charitable contributions. Not only are the richest Americans loathe to pay more taxes to further contribute to society, they’re also giving a far smaller percentage of their discretionary incomes to charity. In both cases, middle-class Americans are picking up the lion’s share of the tab.

Households earning $50,000 to $75,000 give, on average, 7.6 of their discretionary income to charity; those making $100,000 or more give only 4.2 percent of their incomes to charity (or 4.7 percent of discretionary). Furthermore, people who live in swanky neighborhoods with other wealthy individuals are even less likely to be generous to charities. When folks whose incomes amount to more than $200,000 make up more than 40 percent of the taxpayers in a given ZIP code, the rich give a paltry 2.8 to charity. This is yet more evidence that the much-ballyhooed “1 percent” don’t always pull their share of the load when it comes to community and country – although when they rub elbows with their middle-class peers, that association seems to nudge them toward generosity.

The most critical of the study’s findings, however, is that tax incentives really do make a difference. When states enact policies that promote charitable giving, more people give, and in larger proportions.

Last year, the Oklahoma Legislature and governor floated the idea to eliminate deductions for charitable giving. Fortunately, it didn’t get far, but its proponents have threatened to reintroduce the measure. Their motive is clear: These deductions aren’t important to those who propose their elimination, because those folks don’t give enough to make a substantial difference on their tax refunds.

Oklahomans aren’t among the richest Americans, but on the whole, they don’t do too shabby of a job taking care of one another. That’s especially true in areas like Cherokee County, where many struggling families need all the help they can get.

The people who need the tax breaks – on both the state and national level – aren’t the 1 percent. They’re the middle class folks, who have on yet another level been lifted up as the backbone of society.