Am I my brother's keeper? Conservatives and churchgoers are far more likely to say "yes," research shows.
A major survey by the Chronicle of Philanthropy confirms that residents of states that lean Republican and are most religious donate more of their money to charity, while more secular regions — and areas that tend to vote Democrat — give less.
But researchers caution that churchgoers are no more generous than secular Americans when donations to religious groups are excluded.
The study, which examined Internal Revenue Service information from 2008, the most recent year for which statistics were available, ranked Utahans as the most charitable people in the U.S.
Residents of the heavily Mormon state gave 10.6 percent of their discretionary income to philanthropic causes in 2008. Mississippi ranked second, with 7.2 percent going to charity. Three other states in the Bible Belt — Alabama, Tennessee and South Carolina — round out the top five.
Each of the top nine states in the Chronicle report voted for John McCain in the 2008 presidential election.
The seven least-generous states went for Barack Obama.
New Hampshire residents gave the least, with 2.5 percent of discretionary income going to charity. It was followed by Maine, Vermont and Massachusetts, whose residents donated 2.8 percent. Residents of Rhode Island, the fifth most frugal state, gave 3.1 percent, according to the study.
"This isn't a surprise at all. What you're seeing [in the report] is collection-plate giving," said Stephen Schneck, director of the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at Catholic University of America.
"Those states with the highest levels of religious attendance are going to rise to the top of the list."
Indeed, when tithing is taken out of the equation, the list of most charitable states changes dramatically.
New York, for example, is ranked No. 18 overall, but jumps to No. 2 when only secular donations are counted. Pennsylvania would make a similar leap, rising from No. 40 to No. 4.
Christians and Mormons are called on to give at least 10 percent of their income to the church (the word "tithe" means "tenth"), though giving by Mormons is generally much higher. One survey found that 90 percent of Latter-day Saints tithe regularly.
"The report shows that Utah residents gave 10.6 percent of their discretionary income to charity, and that doesn't come as a great surprise because the majority of Utah residents are Mormons, and that's required by their faith," said Joseph Grieboski, founder and chairman of the Institute on Religion and Public Policy.
"Secular contributions tend to be to secular issues," he said. "So, New England and the West Coast, they're more likely to give to the Red Cross, the arts, museums, whereas in the Bible Belt or in Utah, they're more likely to give to charities affiliated with religion."
Some analysts take issue with directly linking a state's generosity with its religious makeup and argue that secular folks contribute in different ways.
Alan Wolfe, a political science professor at Boston College and head of the school's Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, told the Associated Press that people in less-religious states are willing to give by paying higher taxes, and thereby funding more government programs to care for the poor and sick.
They "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," he said. "I think people here believe that when they pay their taxes, they're being altruistic."
While religion plays a role, basic questions about the role of government also have a tremendous impact in determining how much someone gives, Mr. Grieboski said.
"People who lean to the political left will rely on the government and pay higher taxes to manage social needs," he said. "People who lean conservative will rely more on the individual and on religious institutions and civil society nonprofits to handle those needs."
Indeed, President Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden have pushed tax increases during campaign stops by calling them patriotic acts.
"It's time to be patriotic … time to jump in, time to be part of the deal, time to help get America out of the rut," Mr. Biden said about higher taxes on wealthier Americans during a 2008 interview with ABC News.
The survey also reinforced a counterintuitive phenomenon: Those who can most afford to give don't do it as often.
Households that earn $50,000 to $75,000 gave an average of 7.6 percent of their income to charity in 2008, compared with 4.2 percent for those who make $100,000 or more. That effect holds true for tithing and for donations to secular groups.
Those who live in wealthy neighborhoods also are likely to be less charitable, regardless of income.
Those making more than $200,000 per year gave 4.2 percent of their money to charity, but when such high earners account for at least 40 percent of all taxpayers in a given ZIP code, the donation rate falls precipitously to 2.8 percent for that area.
"The wealthiest Americans are the ones who give a smaller portion of their disposable income to charity. It's the middle-class Americans who give the larger portions," Mr. Schneck said.
As for why, there is no clear answer.
"It's a question people who study philanthropies have been trying to figure out for years," he said.
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