Charitable Giving: Liberals vs. Conservatives

An interesting article on charitable giving via Greg Mankiw.

The conventional wisdom runs like this: Liberals are charitable because they advocate government redistribution of money in the name of social justice; conservatives are uncharitable because they oppose these policies. But note the sleight of hand: Government spending, according to this logic, is a form of charity.

I suppose many on the Left might object that this is somewhat of strawman in that they don’t necessarily claim that conservatives are not charitable or that “giving via government redistribution” is a form of charity, but still the notion that conservatives are greedy SOBs who don’t care about the poor and less fortunate is a standard type of rhetoric used by the Left.

Let us be clear: Government spending is not charity. It is not a voluntary sacrifice by individuals. No matter how beneficial or humane it might be, no matter how necessary it is for providing public services, it is still the obligatory redistribution of tax revenues. Because government spending is not charity, sanctimonious yard signs do not prove that the bearers are charitable or that their opponents are selfish.

This is exactly right and I’d also point out that it isn’t really charity when it is somebody else’s money. Prof. Brooks goes on to point out that the data in terms of private charitable giving indicate that people who he defines as conservatives give far more than those he defines as liberal. At this point one might wonder, how does he define liberal vs. conservative? Well, here is how he does it,

First, we must define “liberals” and “conservatives.” Most surveys ask people not just about their political party affiliation but also about their ideology. In general, about 10 percent of the population classify themselves as “very conservative”; and another 10 percent call themselves “very liberal.” About 20 percent say they are simply “liberal,” and 30 percent or so say they are “conservative.” The remaining 30 percent call themselves “moderates” or “centrists.” In this discussion, by “liberals” I mean the approximately 30 percent in the two most liberal categories, and by conservatives I mean the 40 percent or so in the two most con­servative categories.

I would be curious to see what the data says for the “moderates”. Still, it looks like the conservatives really do care about other people, even the less fortunate.

Update: Commenter Cernig points to this post by James Lindgren that takes a closer look at the analysis by Brooks and the results are far less stron than Brooks is claiming.

I am skeptical of basing so much on the SCCBS, in large part because it reports that liberal families make more money than conservatives (it is not clear from Brooks’s book whether the survey is of a representative national sample). In the 2000, 2002, and 2004 General Social Surveys, which are representative samples of the US, conservative families make $2,500 to $5,600 a year more than liberal families in each one. Although I don’t have the ANES data handy, my recollection is that the economic differences between conservatives and liberals are usually in the same direction and even larger in the ANES than in the GSS. Further, in each of these 3 GSSs, the lowest income families were the political moderates, who usually made substantially less than either liberals or conservatives.

Which does raise a good question about the quality of the data that Brooks used.

I found this part amusing though,

This raises another problem with Brooks’ analysis: the contrast in Who Really Cares is frequently made between liberals (about 30% of the population) and conservatives (about 40% of the population), but I find that often the group that contrasts most strongly with conservatives is not liberals (who share with conservatives higher than average educations), but political moderates (about 30% of the population).

This problem comes to a head in Brooks’s probit and regression models analyzing SCCBS data (pp. 192-193). After controlling for a lot of things that you might not want to control for (i.e., being religious or secular), Brooks concludes that “liberals and conservatives are not distinguishable” in whether they have made any donation in the last year. This is literally true, but he fails to note that in the model liberals give significantly more than moderates, if a traditional .05 significance level is used, while conservatives do not differ significantly from moderates. Yet in Table 6, the significance level used as a threshold for identification with an asterisk is .01, not .05, as he uses in some of the other tables. In one table (p. 197), Brooks even reports significance at the .10 level, as well as at the .05 and .01 levels.

This highlights, for me at least, the absurdity of using Frequentist statistics. “Well, it certainly does become statistically significant once we change the level of significance!” Big deal, so it is significant at the 5% level, but not the 1% level. I prefer Bayes Factors which gives us a “weight of evidence” and we don’t have to worry about some arbitrarily chosen level of significance.

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Steve Verdon
About Steve Verdon
Steve has a B.A. in Economics from the University of California, Los Angeles and attended graduate school at The George Washington University, leaving school shortly before staring work on his dissertation when his first child was born. He works in the energy industry and prior to that worked at the Bureau of Labor Statistics in the Division of Price Index and Number Research. He joined the staff at OTB in November 2004.


  1. the price of commodities. Under this shortsighted economic system, an increase in oil consumption not accompanied by a corresponding increase in supply causes a spike in prices. And since everyone in the “cultured” world knows that Americans areenormously stingy with their money, it’s no wonder that people would try to burn as little gas as possible; conserve; carpool. In our selfish attempts to minimise spending, we ignored the catastrophic effects on the planet by burning far less oil than we were capable of. We have the

  2. Cernig says:

    Hi Steve,

    It’s Prof. Brooks, not Burns, and this study has been meming its way around Right Blogistan for the last month…long enough for conservative intellectuals to honestly analyze the premises and findings and look askance at them. Witness this post from the Volokh Conspiracy blog.

    I am skeptical of basing so much on the SCCBS, in large part because it reports that liberal families make more money than conservatives (it is not clear from Brooks’s book whether the survey is of a representative national sample). In the 2000, 2002, and 2004 General Social Surveys, which are representative samples of the US, conservative families make $2,500 to $5,600 a year more than liberal families in each one. Although I don’t have the ANES data handy, my recollection is that the economic differences between conservatives and liberals are usually in the same direction and even larger in the ANES than in the GSS.

    …I can’t rule out the possibility that Brooks changed his reporting of the significance level so he wouldn’t have to explain why, after lots and lots of controls, liberals were more likely to have made a donation than moderates, while conservatives did not differ significantly from either liberals or moderates.

    Regards, Cernig

  3. Cernig says:

    Hi again Steve,

    I find that Prof Brooks has used the same data massaged in more than one way. In a Policy Review article from 2002, he used the data to show that the biggest indicator is whether one is religious or not.

    The differences in charity between secular and religious people are dramatic. Religious people are 25 percentage points more likely than secularists to donate money (91 percent to 66 percent) and 23 points more likely to volunteer time (67 percent to 44 percent). And, consistent with the findings of other writers, these data show that practicing a religion is more important than the actual religion itself in predicting charitable behavior. For example, among those who attend worship services regularly, 92 percent of Protestants give charitably, compared with 91 percent of Catholics, 91 percent of Jews, and 89 percent from other religions.

    Socioeconomically, the religious and secular groups are similar in some ways and different in others. For example, there is little difference between the groups in income (both have average household incomes around $49,000) or education level (20 percent of each group holds a college degree). On the other hand, the secular group is disproportionately male (49 percent to 32 percent), unmarried (58 percent to 40 percent), and young (42 to 49 years old, on average). In addition, the sccbs data show that religion and secularism break down on ideological lines: Religious people are 38 percentage points more likely to say they are conservative than to say they are liberal (57 percent to 19 percent). In contrast, secular people are 13 points more likely to say they are liberal than to say they are conservative (42 percent to 29 percent).

    It is possible, of course, that the charity differences between secular and religious people are due to these nonreligious socioeconomic differences. To investigate this possibility, I used a statistical procedure called probit regression to examine the role of religious practice in isolation from all other relevant demographic characteristics: political beliefs, income (and hence, indirectly, the tax incentives for giving), education level, gender, age, race, marital status, and area of residence. The data show that if two people — one religious and the other secular — are identical in every other way, the secular person is 23 percentage points less likely to give than the religious person and 26 points less likely to volunteer.

    Note that neither political ideology nor income is responsible for much of the charitable differences between secular and religious people. For example, religious liberals are 19 points more likely than secular liberals to give to charity, while religious conservatives are 28 points more likely than secular conservatives to do so. In other words, religious conservatives (who give and volunteer at rates of 91 percent and 67 percent) appear to differ from secular liberals (who give and volunteer at rates of 72 percent and 52 percent) more due to religion than to politics. Similarly, giving differences do not disappear when income is neutralized. This should not be particularly surprising, however, because the sccbs data show practically no income differences between the groups. Furthermore, research on philanthropy has consistently shown that the poor tend to give more frequently — and a higher percentage of their incomes — than the middle class. For example, economist Charles Clotfelter and others have shown that the poor tend to give a proportion of their income to charity that is comparable to the giving proportion of the very wealthy — and nearly twice that of the middle class.2 (This seems to be true only for the working poor, however. Welfare support appears to depress giving substantially.3)

    So according to Brooks, I – being a religious (pagan) poor person probably give more as a percentage of income than you as a member of the middle-class, whewther or not you are religious.

    And I continue to believe, as Adam Smith did and modern American conservatives seem not to, that aiding the least fortunate of society is one of the neccesary roles of government. UK conservatives from Disraeli through Churchill continued to steer Smith’s line and now it looks like David Cameron is eschewing Thatcherite/Republican policy to return to the conservative mainstream.

    Or maybe all this just suggests that Brooks is an opportunist who will do his damndest to prove whatever he thinks will sell his books…lies, damned lies, and statistics

    Regards, Cernig

  4. Bithead says:

    I am reminded, of the huge increase in charitable giving, immediately following the Reagan tax cuts. That charitable giving came from all over the place, every segment of society. It is a point in time that is routinely ignored by those who think (?) that government largess is “charity”.

    Think about why that is, and you’ll have a pretty good handle for the rest of the problem that you note.

  5. floyd says:

    great clarity in words that needed said; good job, thanks

  6. Wickedpinto says:

    I’m relatively impoverished, and I live day to day, in my economics.

    However, as a Private in the Marine Corps, I had no problem donating 1K to the ACF.

    I guess servicemembers are JUST warmongers.

    Lets get cindy to match dollar for dollar.

    I hate that woman.