On May 23, Reid Wilson’s commentary in the Washington Post wrote of Utah, “When it comes to generosity, no one beats Utah’s giving spirit.” His essay refers to polling done by Gallup where people across the nation were asked, “Have you done any of the following in the past month? How about – Donated money to a charity? Volunteered your time to an organization?”
Utah, even today, is a sparsely populated and mostly Mormon place. Mormons give generously, but the lion’s share of their giving is to other Mormons. Americans may not recognize this as charitable giving as they understand it, whatever the tax laws are. This could mean that the Gallup poll distorts things a little bit, giving its readers a false impression of the conditions of charitable giving between American states.
This condition exists elsewhere, really everywhere. Churchgoers across the nation pay tithes to their ministers, in order to sustain faith communities. But Mormons are taught to give as a matter of consecration of time, money, and talent, directly back to their Church, because there is no paid clergy at the local level. Mormon tithes don’t support a minister’s family. They’re remitted to a central bank account, with local control of funds surrendered entirely to the larger institutional Church. Other American churches operate differently, but many are also institutions. Much of American charity is directed to institutions which return an intangible benefit directly back to the giver, by fostering the health of the community, and the ability of her church to serve her where she worships, whatever the tangibility of that service.
Wilson’s poll doesn’t distinguish between that kind of giving, and the kind of charity where no service benefit could ever be returned. One family from Ohio who I know has volunteered for years, taking over the duties in a homeless shelter’s kitchen to supply the meals for one day a month. Kathy, the woman who coordinates the effort, bends her best talents toward supplying a good experience for the strangers she serves. In doing this as she’s done for many years, the impetus comes from her own heart, motivated by her religious ethic. The form it takes stems from her own ingenuity and sustains a charitable organization, but Kathy doesn’t need the services of the shelter the way that a churchgoer paying a tithe needs the services of his congregation’s leaders.
But the answer to the Gallup question is “Yes” in both Kathy’s case and any Utah Mormon’s, without discerning differences. It’s also true that many, if not most Utahans give generously to causes the way that Kathy does. The flaw here isn’t in the giving; both are good and I would argue that neither is better than the other. It’s very easy to build a narrative about the way peaceful churches nurture civilized communities and bind them together, the one kind of charity fostering the other. It doesn’t discern between charitable giving to organizations, which requires a level of economic affluence, and the looser social charities offered with a kind word or a moment of service, all the time, among people without those means.
This makes the ranking of the states along disposable income giving into a distorted picture of the quality of mercy and kindness present in places Gallup ranks “last.” It’s fine to speak well of Utah; it is a place filled with compassionate people. But it would be a mistake to criticize the good people of 50-th place Louisiana, whose generosity in their relative (and only relative) poverty surely takes other forms Gallup simply couldn’t capture with its simplistic time-and-money question.