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Charles Murray must be nodding somewhere. In a piece in the new issue of the Atlantic called “Why the Rich Don’t Give,” Ken Stern explains that wealthy Americans give a lower percentage away than do poorer Americans. Those in the top 20% donated 1.3% whereas those in the bottom 20% gave 3.2%. One theory is that the wealthy are just more selfish. But research shows that if two people in different income brackets watch a video on child poverty, their “willingness to help is almost identical.” (As a side note, I’m not sure what “willingness to help” means. Do both people give away the same amount then? Or do they give the same percentage or do they just express a willingness to help?)

But let’s say that Stern is right. Exposure to problems like poverty make rich people give more to alleviate such problems. He goes on to explain that the rich who live less isolated lives -- in areas where there are different classes of people present -- are more likely to give more. This seems quite reasonable. So what’s the problem? The problem is that the rich and poor are leading lives that are increasingly separate from each other.

As Charles Murray explained in his most recent book, Coming Apart, there is a growing divide between rich and poor when it comes to our values. And that is manifesting itself in a geographical divide. Here’s Murray writing in the Wall Street Journal last year:

In 1960, America already had the equivalent of SuperZIPs in the form of famously elite neighborhoods -- places like the Upper East Side of New York, Philadelphia's Main Line, the North Shore of Chicago and Beverly Hills. But despite their prestige, the people in them weren't uniformly wealthy or even affluent. Across 14 of the most elite places to live in 1960, the median family income wasn't close to affluence. It was just $84,000 (in today's purchasing power). Only one in four adults in those elite communities had a college degree.

By 2000, that diversity had dwindled. Median family income had doubled, to $163,000 in the same elite ZIP Codes. The percentage of adults with B.A.s rose to 67% from 26%. And it's not just that elite neighborhoods became more homogeneously affluent and highly educated -- they also formed larger and larger clusters.

Who is to blame for this separation? Most of these upper and upper-middle class families did not up and decide one day that they needed to live more cloistered lives. They fled certain neighborhoods in cities and they fled cities altogether largely for two reasons -- crime and poor public education. Families that could afford to moved to the suburbs not simply -- as some would have it -- because they were white, but because they wanted their kids to be safe and they wanted good schools.

But it seems logical that being away from the problems of urban life and the problems of the lower classes has allowed members of the upper class to turn a blind eye. Is there any way to change this short of showing the rich more videos of child poverty? Well, gentrification of certain neighborhoods would probably accomplish that. More charter schools that would allow middle-class parents to get the education they want for their kids. Oh and policing policies like the ones currently under attack in New York that make the streets safer. But I’m not sure Ken Stern would favor any of those.

He does note that the poor tend to give the bulk of their money to religious institutions and social service organizations while the rich tend to give to colleges and arts institutions. I wonder about this, though, since, as Murray and others have shown, it is the upper classes that tend to be more religious these days. But these numbers might be skewed by blacks -- who are among the most religious Americans and also among the poorest.

1 thought on “Why the rich give more — A reality check”

  1. Edward says:

    Not a well-reasoned argument.

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