Early last week, the Chronicle of Philanthropy released a new analysis of tax and charitable giving data. The (unrelated) findings? Well, finger pointing is in vogue.
The Chronicle report found a number of significant conclusions, with their own topline finding “wealthy Americans earned more, but the portion of the income they gave to charity declined.” However, it is important to note that this conclusion is based on relative giving; as the Chronicle points out, absolute giving by the wealthy increased: “[T]he total amount [the wealthy] gave increased by $4.6-billion, to hit $77.5-billion in 2012, using inflation-adjusted dollars.”
A closer look at the data revealed some interesting inter- and intrastate patterns. One of the most cited secondary reports of the Chronicle noticed one of these interesting interstate trends: “Of all the states that gave the most to charity in 2012, the top 17 all voted for Mitt Romney that year. The bottom seven states in giving all voted for Obama.” This report from The Fix blog (hosted by the Washington Post) also found that the Chronicle’s data correlates with religiosity (not unsurprisingly finding that “the states at the top of the giving list . . . are also at the top in terms of religious devotion”).
Religion, politics, and money – what could possibly go wrong here?
Expectedly, the Post’s political and religious correlative findings were widely reported (with thousands of online sources citing the Post's article within six days of its online publication). On the right, these results were celebrated; on the left, they were doubted and dismissed.
On the right, the report was featured prominently on the front page of The Heritage Foundation’s Daily Signal. It was popularly shared by the Independent Journal Review (the conservative "Upworthy"). It was also featured in a letter to Newsmax from Catholic League president William Donohue titled, “Why Liberals Are Selfish.” Donohue argued:
No one disputes that liberals rhetorically champion the cause of the poor more than conservatives – it is one of their defining characteristics – so why is it that they are the most miserly in parting with their money to help the poor?
On the left, the most scathing attack came from AMERICAblog, a self-described “progressive” journal of news and opinion. Reporting on the Post’s story about the Chronicle report, Chris Trejbal argued,
Religious people give a lot of money to charity because churches, synagogues and mosques count as charities in the eyes of the Internal Revenue Service. . . . To the IRS, a dollar given to the Thomas Road Baptist Church used to build an even grander palace for the Falwell clan in Virginia is the same as a dollar given to Meals on Wheels, the Red Cross or any number of charities that actually do some good in the world. People in red states, then, give a lot of money to “charities” that do not do a whole lot of charitable work, unless you count convincing people to believe in fairy tales and to vote against their self-interest as charity.
The right lauds the findings; the left de-legitimizes them. The problem? The Chronicle's original study was not even looking at this question, and those on both sides are simply commenting on a post hoc correlative analysis using supplemented data. It is worth remembering two notes: first, (as Trejbal points out) correlation does not equal causation and, second, the Chronicle is looking at levels of analysis greater than the individual level (zipcode, town, county, state). Before we celebrate the actions of religious individuals or attack those dropping money in the collection plate, we need to bear in mind the aim, limits, and conclusions of the study.
Those in politics don’t need much of an excuse to turn an aside into an attack. But let us take a deep breath before we write off the liberals as selfish and the religious as foolish.