Charity: Luxury or Necessity?
Via DarwinCatholic, Arthur Brooks has an article up at NRO exploring the poor giving record of Barach and Michelle Obama:
After Mr. and Mrs. Obama released their tax returns, the press quickly noticed that, between 2000 and 2004, they gave less than one percent of their income to charity, far lower than the national average. Their giving rose to a laudable five percent in 2005 and six percent in 2006, with the explosion of their annual income to near $1 million, and the advent of Mr. Obama’s national political aspirations (representing a rare case in which political ambition apparently led to social benefit).
According to an Obama spokesman, the couple’s miserly charity until 2005 “was as generous as they could be at the time,” given their personal expenses. In other words, despite an annual average income over the period of about $244,000, they simply could not afford to give anything meaningful.
It must be hard, making hundreds of thousands of dollars and not having anything to spare. As Michelle Obama herself recently noted, “We spend between the two kids, on extracurriculars outside the classroom, we’re spending about $10,000 a year on piano and dance and sports supplements. And summer programs… Do you know what summer camp costs?”
But one shouldn’t be too hard on the Obamas. The couple thousand bucks they gave out of their poverty is at least better than the $353 Al Gore gave out of his nearly $200,000 income three years before his Presidential run (oddly, like the Obamas the amount of his giving increased substantially as he geared up to run for President). And as Brooks notes, the Obamas’ giving patterns are consistent with the giving patterns of self-described liberals generally:
In 1996, the General Social Survey asked a large sample of Americans whether they agreed that, “The government has a responsibility to reduce income inequality.” Those who “disagreed strongly” with this statement gave an amazing twelve times more money to charity per year, on average, than those who “agreed strongly.” People disagreeing strongly also gave nine times more to secular causes than those agreeing strongly, and even gave more to traditionally progressive causes, such as the environment and the arts.
As Brooks has noted elsewhere, this charity disparity is present not only in terms of money donations, but in everything from the number of hours volunteered to the donation of blood, and persists even when factors like income. According to Brooks, this difference in giving levels is due not primarily to the fact that it is easier to be charitable with other people’s money than it is with one’s own, but to a difference in how charitable giving is conceived:
many political liberals simply don’t believe that redistribution is very effective at the voluntary level; rather, redistribution is so important that it should be undertaken at the large-group level as a matter of law.
From this perspective, private charity, while a lovely thing, is still a dispensable extravagance. This might help explain the Obamas’ relatively meager giving before they got rich. Feeling the pinch of student loans and child-care costs, they neglected charity in much the way they might have forgone many other unnecessary luxury gewgaws. Later, with buckets of income from book royalties, they devoted some of it to giving. For many Americans, however, this view of charity as an expendable luxury is anathema. Giving is a necessity, not a luxury — a year-in and year-out necessity.
Personally, I think Brooks is a bit too quick to dismiss the idea that it’s easier to support spending other people’s money on a worthy cause than it is spending your own. But if the matter comes down to whether charity ought to be thought of as an luxury or as a necessity, then, from the Christian point of view, the answer would seem pretty clear.
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