Who are our most charitable givers?

A number of papers ran an article over the Memorial Day weekend from the McClatchey Newpapers that analyzed data from the U.S. Census Bureau showing that the poorest Americans are the most generous in giving to charity. By far. When the population is broken down into income quintiles, the poorest fifth of American households, with an average income of just over $10,000, were found to give 4.3 percent of their income to charity, nearly double the national average, and more than twice what the wealthiest give.

charity-incomeAs this piece from Portfolio.com notes, these findings are consistent with an extensive series of studies and research showing the generosity of America’s poor.

There are various ways to account for those who have least giving most, but the explanations provided by the low-income givers interviewed for the McClatchey article were revealing, suggesting that a combination of religious conviction, empathy, greater exposure to people in need, and a lesser preoccupation with money all play a role:

“As a rule, people who have money don’t know people in need,” saId Tanya Davis, 40, a laid-off security guard and single mother.

Certainly, better-off people aren’t hit up by friends and kin as often as Davis said she was, having earned a reputation for generosity while she was working.

Now getting by on $110 a week in unemployment insurance and $314 a month in welfare, Davis still fields two or three appeals a week, she said, and lays out $5 or $10 weekly.

To explain her giving, Davis offered the two reasons most commonly heard in three days of conversations with low-income donors:

“I believe that the more I give, the more I receive, and that God loves a cheerful giver,” Davis said. “Plus I’ve been in their position, and someday I might be again.”

Herbert Smith, 31, a Seventh-day Adventist who said he tithed his $1,010 monthly disability check — giving away 10 percent of it — thought that poor people give more because, in some ways, they worry less about their money.

“We’re not scared of poverty the way rich people are,” he said. “We know how to get the lights back on when we can’t pay the electric bill.”

Often when we think about safety net programs for the poor and working poor, we think of assistance as a one-way street. This research should serve to remind us that those we help are actively and generously helping others as well.


Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

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