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A Worrying Trend in American Generosity

America set a record for charitable giving during the pandemic in 2020. Yet half of us didn’t give a dime.

Total giving to charity in 2020 was $471.44 billion. Yes, you read that right. Almost half a trillion dollars. Slightly more than the non-pandemic year before. Individuals make up the majority of that number (close to 70%), with the rest coming from corporate donations.

[You can read some of the highlights from Giving USA here.]

We pride ourselves in being a generous nation, and it’s not unfounded. We are the #1 country in the world in total giving, according to World Giving Index. However, who is doing that giving has been trending in the wrong direction. We are slowly becoming more and more dependent on a few people to be generous.

Let’s back up for context. Y2K might have been a letdown, but the one thing that wasn’t a hoax was individual giving. 2/3rds of all American’s at some point in 2000 gave to charity’s, churches, and nonprofits, even if it was only a dollar. But that number has fallen off dramatically in the time since, dropping to below 50% in 2018 (Giving USA).

Half of Americans gave away ZERO DOLLARS. Again, you aren’t reading that wrong. How does overall giving go up, but those contributing goes down? Big Donors. The Mackenzie Scott’s of the world making outrageous donations to HBCU’s is both admirable and misleading because it covers up the loss of increased number of people opting out of being generous themselves.

We are leading the world in giving with one arm tied behind our back.

But the church must be a whole lot better, right? I mean, we’ve been teaching this whole “tithing” mandate (giving 10% of your income to the local church) for quite a while now. I remember feeling guilty every time the preacher would do his annual “Give Back to God” sermon, feeling like I was the only one cheating on this test of my true Christianity.

But did this hard sell work? Is the church really churning out givers left and right?

According to American Generosity: Who gives and why, it seems to be true.“The three most consistent predictors of generous outcome… are having a college degree, earning greater income, and regularly attending religious services. “

So we are good then, right? Not exactly. While being a committed Christian might be a good predictor of giving in the general population, the reality of the numbers tell another side of the story:

  • Less than 10% of Christians tithe, and some sources that say it’s closer to 5%.
  • The average church-goer contributes 2.5% of their total annual income. However, that includes big givers which skews the average higher.
  • In 1998, Christians averaged a median $200 in annual giving, which at the median income of $32,000 meant they were only contributing 0.62%.
  • 59.6% of all donations are from the top 5% of givers.
  • 20% of Christians gave nothing at all.

[Stats taken from Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money, unless otherwise identified.]

I know I just threw a ton of numbers in your face, but hopefully you see a pattern. No matter where you land on “tithing,” it’s startling that almost no one is actually doing it (I should have given myself a pass). And the same trend continues in the church. As author, researcher, and Notre Dame professor of sociology Christian Smith sums up these findings:

  • “A small group of truly generous Christian givers are essentially “covering” for the vast majority of Christians who give nothing or quite little.”

Half of all Americans don’t give, and Christians aren’t doing much better.

That’s heartbreaking, because it means people are missing out on something amazing. Giving is a joy, and they don’t even realize it. We can hypothesize why people aren’t giving a large portion of their income, but the bar for many of these stats is $1. You don’t have to give like Drake, but anyone can give $1. A homeless man once gave me a $5 subway pass when I lived in Berkeley, California, which he said he didn’t need because people were trying to murder him on the BART lines.

As crazy as that sounds, it’s more insane to me that everyone doesn’t give something. If only they knew they were missing out.

*This post includes some affiliated links.

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