- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 19, 2002

Americans have given less and less of their disposable income to religious charity since the 1960s and now spend more on church buildings and staff and less on helping the needy, a new study shows.
The findings, compiled by a Christian group that criticizes rosy philanthropic reports, suggest Americans have grown stingy in an era when the Bush administration is banking on citizen generosity to solve social problems.
"The churches have been servicing people rather than transforming them," said Sylvia Ronsvalle, founder of Empty Tomb, which last week issued its 12th report on "the state of church giving."
The report compared annual giving from 1968 with 2000 and found a decline in "benevolence," or direct charity, among a representative sample of Protestant denominations with about 100,000 churches.
The report also challenges the positive annual pictures given by industry and government reports on charity.
"Everything is not really OK," Mrs. Ronsvalle said in an interview. "We are turning inward. Charity is becoming less important to American people in general."
Religious philanthropy is the largest sector of all American giving and is an indicator of trends in secular philanthropy, the report said.
In a chapter on philanthropic data, the report gives industry and government groups low marks on accuracy. "The optimistic numbers we hear are from trade organizations that want to be encouraging," Mrs. Ronsvalle said.
She said trade reports typically showcase the total giving of Americans in billions of dollars but overlook how much more Americans could have given or gave of their incomes in the past.
The new report, for example, said the average churchgoing person in 1965 had $10,334 in disposable income and gave $295 to charity. In 1995, that same person had $20,750 in disposable income and gave $492.94 about $100 less in 1965 dollars.
More of that giving stays in a local church to improve its quality of life, the report said.
Trade groups agree that statistics on charity are imprecise, but defend their methods and optimistic findings on giving each year.
"That number has gone up steadily," said Melissa Brown of Giving USA, which uses tax returns to chart annual individual giving. Generosity has risen every year since 1959, she said, though "it is subject to economic pressures."
Trade groups say wealthier people don't report all giving, so there may be an "undercount" of American philanthropy. Another theory is that less church benevolence appears because religious Americans give more to secular charities.
"The trend in giving is certainly upward," said Pat Read, a vice president at Independent Sector, which issues an annual report.
"We are open about the limitations [of exact numbers]," she said. "We realize there may be some predispositions" of people to report being more generous than they are.
Those interviewed yesterday agreed with a perennial recommendation, repeated in the Ronsvalle report, for a national commission to standardize charitable measures to allow an accurate social discussion.
"The figures are wishy-washy," said Pablo Eisenberg of the Georgetown University Public Policy Institute. "No one quite knows."
Foundations, which by law must "pay out" at least 5 percent of assets each year, "could pay out 7 percent and still do fine," he said. "Even in this poor economy, they should prime the pump and help nonprofit groups."


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