Friday, December 26, 2008

‘Tis the season to be jolly, and to give to charity. Hard to do in this economic environment? Consider that the working poor give a higher percentage of their meager income to charity than the wealthy and middle class, and that the only reliable way to “buy happiness” is to give money to charity. Many studies have shown that giving and volunteering improve physical health and happiness, while leading to better citizenship. People who give money are 43 percent more likely to say they are “very happy” than non-givers and 25 percent more likely to say their health is excellent or good.

These are among the many findings in “Gross National Happiness,” published this year, and “Who Really Cares,” published in 2006, both written by Arthur C. Brooks, a professor of public administration at Syracuse University and, as of Jan. 1, the new president of the American Enterprise Institute. His research led him to suggest a “Happiness Platform” for America that includes defending America’s tradition of religious faith; protecting family life; looking for ways to promote opportunity, not economic equality; celebrating our work, not impose greater leisure; and understanding that happiness is easiest to find in limited government. Many of these things were counterintuitive to his original assumptions. After extensive analyses and data testing, he said he changed his mind.

A public-policy and behavioral-economics expert, Mr. Brooks discovered a huge “charity gap,” with conservatives giving 30 percent more than liberals even though they earned an average of 6 percent less income (volunteerism follows the same pattern - if liberals gave blood like conservatives do, our blood supply would jump about 45 percent). Many of the liberals’ donations were to arts and education groups, which, as liberal columnist Nicholas D. Kristof has pointed out, “actually increase inequality because they go mostly to elite institutions attended by the wealthy.” The gap is even more pronounced with religious vs. secular giving; religious people gave far more across the board to all causes than their non-religious counterparts ($2,210 vs. $642). Even discounting gifts to religious causes, they gave on average 54 percent more to human-welfare charities than secular people.

In his New York Times column, Mr. Kristof calls on liberals to “redeem yourselves, and put your wallets where your hearts are.” That’s a good message - and not just for liberals.

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