Judith Warner writes today in the New York Times Magazine on “The Charitable Giving Divide” (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/22/magazine/22FOB-wwln-t.html)
It has long been known that those with less gave a higher percentage of their income to charity than those with higher incomes. What is new in the study she cites seems to be a social science-based study validating what development and fundraising people have documented anecdotally for years: appeal to empathy works as a means of securing significant increases in giving levels. Absent any effort to create such appeals, people of means tended to give at some often informally acceptable level to the organization seeking funds or they met prescribed giving levels set out by the organization for recognition. In this latter case, what was often set initially as a level to induce an increase in their giving, i.e. setting a $1000/year gift as the top level for recognition where most people of means had been giving less, in a few years became a floor, i.e. the “acceptable” top level. Absent some special reason, usually presented personally to them, why should a wealthy person give more than the highest level required to be recognized as one of the organizations top supporters? Now there is some social science behind making that special appeal.
From Warner’s piece:
…lower-income people were more generous, charitable, trusting and helpful to others than were those with more wealth. They were more attuned to the needs of others and more committed generally to the values of egalitarianism.
“Upper class” people, on the other hand, clung to values that “prioritized their own need.” And, he told me this week, “wealth seems to buffer people from attending to the needs of others.” Empathy and compassion appeared to be the key ingredients in the greater generosity of those with lower incomes. And these two traits proved to be in increasingly short supply as people moved up the income spectrum.
Given all this, it’s tempting to believe that there’s something intrinsic to the rich or the poor that explains their greater or lesser generosity and empathetic connection to others (i.e., rich people get rich because they like money more and are less distracted from their goals by the relational side of life), but Piff’s research points in a different direction. Piff found that if higher-income people were instructed to imagine themselves as lower class, they became more charitable. If they were primed by, say, watching a sympathy-eliciting video, they became more helpful to others — so much so, in fact, that the difference between their behavior and that of the low-income subjects disappeared. And fascinatingly, the inverse was true as well: when lower-income people were led to think of themselves as upper class, they actually became less altruistic.
“These patterns can be changed,” Piff says. What this means is that whatever morality tale can be spun by the giving patterns for rich people and poor people, it shouldn’t turn on the presumed nobility of the needy or essential cupidity of the fortunate. Instead, we should look at what has pushed rich and poor (or, more accurately, the rich and everyone else) to such opposite extremes of existence.