As a Canadian who has just celebrated her twentieth anniversary of residence in the United States, I’ve often been struck by the important differences that remain between these two countries that, in many ways, are so very similar in their histories and cultures.
Some of those differences are on display in a comparison of Canadian and American charitable giving habits. Canadians give much less to charity than Americans. According to the Fraser Institute’s Generosity Index, in 2008 (the latest year for which data is available), not only did a higher percentage of Americans than Canadians claim a tax deduction for charitable gifts (27.3 percent versus 23.6 percent), Americans who gave to charity reported giving nearly twice as much of their income than Canadians (1.33 percent versus 0.73 percent).
There have been competing explanations of why Canadians are relatively stingy. The American sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset argued in books such as Continental Divide: The Values and Institutions of the United States and Canada that Canadians have a “deferential political culture” and a “communitarian” orientation that leads Canadians to look to elites and to government rather than to themselves to maintain important institutions. On Lipset’s political culture account, Canadian political culture simply doesn’t lend strong support to the kind of Tocquevillian community institutions that are readily supported by private efforts and funds in the United States.
Others have supposed that it’s not so much political culture but simple economics that leads Canadians to give less: Canada still has a lower GDP per capita than the United States and Canadians are taxed at higher rates than Americans, so Canadians simply have less ability to give to charities than Americans.
The next couple years may give us a chance to learn more about which of these two explanations is correct and, perhaps, to see Canadian and American charitable giving rates converge.
Change may come from the strong economic performance of Canada relative to the United States since 2008. I’ve made seven trips to Canada over the past year, and each time I’ve been impressed by how much better the Canadian economy is doing than the U.S. economy. All my Canadian friends who lost jobs or were working fewer hours are back at work. My friends’ experiences are typical: as the Wall Street Journal reported last month,
Canadian banks survived the global financial crisis relatively unscathed. Commodities prices have boosted Canadian producers and lured fresh, international investment. Housing prices across the country are booming, and Canada has gained back all the jobs it lost in the recession.
As Canadians fare better than Americans in the post-recession period, will their charitable giving inch closer to Americans’ charitable giving? According to Imagine Canada, an umbrella organization for Canadian charities, recent months have seen improved conditions for Canadian charities: foundations reported increased revenues of 12 percent (although operating charities have seen support decline by 1.4 percent), operating charities are hiring new staff, and non-profit leaders are generally more optimistic about being able to carry out their missions. The contrast between this optimistic assessment of the Canadian non-profit environment and recent gloomy assessments of the U.S. non-profit environment is striking.
Certainly Canadians have a long way to go before they are as generous as their southern neighbors. However, it would be welcome development of Canada’s recent comparatively strong economic performance that Canadians give more to charities and better support non-profits in their communities. This would be a sign that Canadian political culture no longer conforms—if it ever did—to Lipset’s description of a deferential, elite- and government-driven culture.