Religious States Give More to Charity

A study found that residents of religious states give more to charity, but the correlation is not so simple

By Jay Lindsay
|  Tuesday, Aug 21, 2012  |  Updated 8:46 AM PDT
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States with the least religious residents are also the stingiest about giving money to charity, a new study on the generosity of Americans suggests.

The study, released Monday by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, found that residents in states where religious participation is higher than the rest of the nation, particularly in the South, gave the greatest percentage of their discretionary income to charity.

The Northeast, with lower religious participation, was the least generous to charities, with the six New England states filling the last six slots among the 50 states. Churches are among the organizations counted as charities by the study, and some states in the Northeast rank in the top 10 when religious giving is not counted.

The most generous state was Utah, where residents gave 10.6 percent of their discretionary income to charity. Next were Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee and South Carolina. The least generous was New Hampshire, at 2.5 percent, followed by Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

In Boston, semi-retired carpenter Stephen Cremins said the traditional New England ideal of self-sufficiency might explain the lower giving, particularly during tight times when people have less to spare.

"Charity begins at home. I'm a big believer of that, you know, you have to take care of yourself before you can help others," Cremins said.

The study found that in the Northeast region, including New England, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New York, people gave 4.1 percent of their discretionary income to charity. The percentage was 5.2 percent in the Southern states, a region from Texas east to Delaware and Florida, and including most of the so-called Bible Belt.

The Bible mandates a 10 percent annual donation, or tithe, to the church, and the donation is commonly preached as a way to thank God, care for others and show faith in God's provision. But it has a greater emphasis in some faiths.

In Mormon teachings, for instance, Latter Day Saints are required to pay a 10 percent tithe to remain church members in good standing, which helps explain the high giving rate in heavily-Mormon Utah.

"Any LDS member who is faithful does that," said Valerie Mason, 70, of Mesa, Ariz., during an interview in Salt Lake City. "Some struggle with it. Some leave the church because of it. But we believe in the blessing. ... Tithing does bring the blessing of God's promise."

When only secular gifts are counted, New York climbs from No. 18 to No. 2 in giving, and Pennsylvania rises from No. 40 to No. 4.

The study was based on Internal Revenue Service records of people who itemized deductions in 2008, the most recent year statistics were available. The data allowed researchers to detail charitable giving down to the ZIP code.

To ensure that states with differing costs of living were judged by the same standard, researchers calculated each state's median discretionary income — the money remaining per household after variable but essential costs such as housing, child care and food are paid for. They then looked at the percentage of discretionary income that the typical household in each state gave to charity.

Alan Wolfe, a political science professor at Boston College, said it's wrong to link a state's religious makeup with its generosity.

People in less religious states are giving in a different way by being more willing to pay higher taxes so the government can equitably distribute superior benefits, Wolfe said. And the distribution is based purely on need, rather than religious affiliation or other variables, said Wolfe, also head of the college's Boisi Center for Religion and Public Life.

Wolfe said people in less religious states "view the tax money they're paying not as something that's forced upon them, but as a recognition that they belong with everyone else, that they're citizens in the common good. ... I think people here believe that when they pay their taxes, they're being altruistic."

Tax and entitlement payments were among the variable living expenses researchers subtracted to arrive at their figures for each state's discretionary income, said Peter Panepento, the Chronicle's assistant managing editor.

"That said, the numbers can't account for psychology and it's very possible that people who live in high-tax areas might feel as though they are already giving a lot of money to help the greater good through their taxes," Panepento said in an email.

The study also found that patterns of charitable giving are colored in political reds and blues.

Of the 10 least generous states, nine voted for Democrat Barack Obama for president in the last election. By contrast, of the 10 most generous states, eight voted for Republican John McCain.

But Panepento said that political breakdown likely speaks to a state's religious makeup, not its prevailing political views. He noted the lowest-ranked Democrat states were also among the least religious, while the top-ranked Republican states were among the more religious.

"I don't know if I could go out and say it's a complete Republican-Democrat difference as much as it is different religious attitudes and culture in these states," he said.

Among other notable findings of the study:

— People who earn $200,000 per year give a greater percentage to charity when they live in ZIP codes with fewer people who are as wealthy as they are.

— People who earn between $50,000 and $75,000 annually give a higher percentage of their discretionary income to charity (7.6 percent) than those who make $100,000 or more (4.2 percent).

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