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Who Really Gives? Partisanship and Charitable Giving in the United States

- October 18, 2012

Michele Margolis and Michael Sances write:

Conservatives and liberals are equally generous in their donation habits. This pattern holds at both the individual and state level, and contradicts the conventional wisdom that partisans differ in their generosity.

What about the claim by Arthur Brooks that conservatives give more? Margolis and Sances write:

We are not the first to ask whether partisanship affects giving. In 2006, Arthur Brooks made headlines with a provocative finding from his book Who Really Cares: despite stereotypes of liberals caring more about the poor, conservatives were purported to be more generous when it comes to giving to charities. These results stirred the political pot by taking “bleeding heart liberals” to task for their stinginess when it comes to their own money. . . . we demonstrate that these results are not robust, and appear to be driven by a non-traditional question wording for identifying liberals and conservatives. After correcting for this problem, there is no statistical difference between conservative and liberal giving, conditional on observable characteristics. Further, when we use partisanship rather than ideology to measure liberalism, there is no statistical difference in giving, regardless of whether we adjust for observable characteristics.

How did Brooks screw up?

One reason for this anomaly could be the unorthodox way in which the SCCBS [the 2000 Social Capital Benchmark Survey] asks about ideology, which differs from the standard phrasing used in the ANES and GSS. The ideology question wording in the 2000 SCCBS reads: “Thinking politically and socially, how would you describe your own general outlook–as being very conservative, moderately conservative, middle-of-the-road, moderately liberal or very liberal?” (emphasis added). It is likely that this wording compels many economic liberals to identify as social conservatives, and many economic conservatives to identify as social liberals; because social liberals tend to be wealthier, this would explain why liberals in the SCCBS are wealthier. Certainly the wording affects the distribution on the ideology question. Whereas 33 and 34% of respondents in the 2000 ANES and GSS respectively identified as conservatives, the percentage jumps to 43 in the SCCBS. For these reasons, it seems reasonable to ask whether these findings can be replicated using another dataset.

Where do liberals and conservatives give their money?

While levels of giving are roughly equivalent, liberals are much more likely to do- nate to secular organizations, and conservatives are more likely to donate to religious causes, especially their own congregation.

And when do they give?

Charitable contributions fluctuate based on the political landscape: Democrats (Republicans) donate less money when a Republican (Democrat) occupies the White House. Conversely, having a co-partisan in the White House increases the average and total donations to nonprofits at the state level.

I’m impressed by this work, partly because a few years ago when I saw Brooks’s claim, I contacted him and asked for details on what he did, and then I threw the problem to some students to replicate it. They got tired and never did it.

P.S. Recently, Arthur Brooks has been having some trouble with the General Social Survey. Working with data can be difficult!