Can Religious Communities Help People Be More Generous?

A friend recently shared this New York Times article about the "charitable-giving divide" between rich and poor. You might think that wealthy people would give a higher percentage of their incomes to charity, since they have more income to spare, but in fact the opposite is true: "In 2001, Independent Sector, a nonprofit organization focused on charitable giving, found that households earning less than $25,000 a year gave away an average of 4.2 percent of their incomes; those with earnings of more than $75,000 gave away 2.7 percent." Also, higher income folks give much of their money away to cultural institutions or universities rather than to organizations that help the poor. Money quote:

[One study found that] lower-income people were more generous, charitable, trusting and helpful to others than were those with more wealth. They were more attuned to the needs of others and more committed generally to the values of egalitarianism.

“Upper class” people, on the other hand, clung to values that “prioritized their own need.” And “wealth seems to buffer people from attending to the needs of others.” Empathy and compassion appeared to be the key ingredients in the greater generosity of those with lower incomes. And these two traits proved to be in increasingly short supply as people moved up the income spectrum.

I haven't done a lot of reading to validate these claims. But it does bring to mind something Robert told me recently about environmental responsibility and the "moral balance sheet." People who do activities that they deem to be green will cut themselves a lot more slack in other areas. For example, people who have an energy-efficient washing machine do more laundry than people who don't. They sort of grade themselves on the curve.

I wonder if it's a similar dynamic here---wealthy people think "Well I give a lot more in absolute dollars, so who cares that it's a smaller percentage?" Assuming they even know about the discrepancy, or care...

Part of the empathy problem is that wealthy folks can isolate themselves from the needs of others. However, one study revealed that "if higher-income people were instructed to imagine themselves as lower class, they became more charitable. If they were primed by, say, watching a sympathy-eliciting video, they became more helpful to others — so much so, in fact, that the difference between their behavior and that of the low-income subjects disappeared."

Maybe churches and other places of worship can help?

One of the assertions the "new atheists" like to make is that religion serves little to no purpose. However, I think religious communities are places---one of the few places, actually---where people from different socioeconomic backgrounds live and share community in a mutual way. It is there that the empathy deficit can be built up again.

Certainly there is a lot of income stratification within churches and other places of worship. Like groups together with like. But I've been in churches in which people with vacation homes worshiped side-by-side with people who were barely off food stamps. Pastors get more of an inside look at people's financial situations---we visit their homes, we get told about bankruptcies---and believe me, there's a lot more income disparity than people might assume on the surface. So how can our places of worship help foster the kind of compassion and empathy that allow the wealthy to give more sacrificially?

UPDATE 4 p.m.: This article (also from the NYT) is about the Muslim prayer room that was in the Twin Towers pre-9/11. It is making a point about the peaceful Muslim presence that was there; however, I was struck by the description of the people who prayed there: "On any given day, Mr. Abdus-Salaam’s companions in the prayer room might include financial analysts, carpenters, receptionists, secretaries and ironworkers. There were American natives, immigrants who had earned citizenship, visitors conducting international business — the whole Muslim spectrum of nationality and race." This is exactly the kind of equalizing dynamic I'm thinking about!