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The Only Bright Spot in American Giving
My brother and I grew up lower-middle income on or near military bases, where the needs of young service members and their families can be seen pretty acutely. Our family relied on the generosity of others, but my mom also involved our family in giving during the Advent season. She was active in the enlisted wives’ club on base and then later in the officer wives’ club, helping volunteer for people who had less reliable access to food and clothes than we did. We made meals, collected cans, and did what we could with our time.
This year during the holidays, while hundreds of thousands of American Christians will donate money and bags of canned food to local food banks, many will also volunteer their time in soup kitchens or elsewhere.
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This volunteering often goes unacknowledged. While we are generally a generous nation, or like to presume we are, we have some funny quirks about it. For one, we like to quantify it and focus quite a bit on the dollars and cents side of things. So much so, in fact, that the British journalist and Christian apologist G. K. Chesterton once teased us, a century ago, about our ostentatious, and not-so-Christlike charity: “An American will praise the prodigal generosity of some other man in giving up his own estate for the good of the poor,” he wrote. “But he will generally say that the philanthropist gave them a 200-acre park, where an Englishman would think it quite sufficient to say that he gave them a park.”
This American focus on money is an interesting observation in light of the fact that we could give a lot more. In 2008, Passing the Plate: Why American Christians Don’t Give Away More Money, by sociologists Christian Smith, Michael Emerson, and Patricia Snell Herzog, challenged the notion that Christians are naturally more generous people. It used social-survey data to identify a variety of factors pushing an underutilization of giving.
Mass consumption and consumerism, discomfort by pastors on the subject, tension between biblical admonitions to give and a strong belief in private property, mistrust of institutions, shyness about discussing the issue with others, and a habit of spontaneous giving all combine to lessen the potential of Americans to give.
Believers “do not give money according to their objective financial capacity in income.” noted Smith, Emerson and Herzog. With so many social, cultural, and organizational forces conspiring to reduce giving, they concluded, paradoxically, that “it is a wonder that American Christians give away as much money as they do.” American Christians could, if they tithed efficiently, give about $46 billion to $85 billion more a year.
But this misses the giving of time, emotions, and energy through volunteer work. Volunteering is, in fact, a consistent bright spot among researchers: People who do it tend to do it often and support thousands of institutions, nonprofits, and organizations that would not exist without this free work.
While wealthier individuals by some measures do give more money, time and emotional support are just as important and are often part of the unpaid labor performed by women in their families and communities—women like my mom.
Herzog, a professor of sociology at the University of Arkansas, went on to dig more deeply into interview and survey data, and, in 2016, published a book with Heather Price, an assistant professor of sociology at Marian University. They wrote American Generosity: Who Gives and Why, which paints a more complex picture about how people in the US give and upends some presumptions.
The researchers conducted a nearly 2,000-person internet survey in 2010. Due to rigorous statistical methods to account for wide demographic differences among respondents, the sample is fairly representative of US giving.
Some of the more intriguing insights, however, came from Price and Herzog’s interviews of 62 people as part of a smaller 40-family study that probed giving habits and histories more closely. It includes several four- to eight-hour interviews to capture more normal snapshots of their lives (and not just when they were on their “best behavior”). This ethnographic component contextualized the families’ homes and neighborhoods via field notes, photographs, and other first-person observations.
Price and Herzog’s work is more encompassing of what “giving” can be composed of than similar past research. They include everything from donating money to volunteering and political or civic work, giving organs and blood, planned estate giving, environmentally mindful consumption, the giving of things, and even relational work.
As one reviewer of the book noted, Herzog and Price’s work is also helpful because it breaks down giving habits. These include planned, habitual, selective, and impulsive giving, with these groups encompassing about 16 percent, 17 percent, 6 percent and 40 percent of Americans, respectively. The difference between habitual and selective is that the latter tend to be more topical or issue-focused but less automatic, and thus still somewhat erratic, with their giving.
Some of their results were surprising. Some 60 percent of the people they surveyed who live below the poverty line gave something, versus 32 percent of those above that line. A humbling finding by the authors was thus the radical giving of those who have very little in terms of money, time, or other resources to the immediate needs of those around them.
“We heard in the interviews where people who were really financially struggling, when they were not at work, they were babysitting for their friends so they could go to work,” Price says. That’s precious work time that’s being given to others.
And while women as a whole tend to give more, married women give the most.
“Marriage allows two people to act as one” and combine resources, says Price, and thus give more, and more reliably. Separately, men tend to give far more impulsively, while women plan their giving. That happens during the holidays, when, as in my experience, a woman tells her kids that the family is going to go to a soup kitchen to volunteer or when that same mom schedules time to help at church in a children’s ministry. Dad, in contrast, will spontaneously help a neighbor fix a car or donate online to help with hurricane relief.
Women are presumed to give more of their time than men, but that’s not necessarily true. Spaces that “activate the giving” tend to be female-dominated, such as churches and nonprofits. These can lead to a consistent “climate of giving,” reinforced in a virtuous cycle, Price says. The latter cycle happens when giving people spend time together in the same ministry or nonprofit setting: Their giving habits are known to each other and reinforce those in others. This means that a web of relationships emerges that is giving-oriented and only becomes more so over time.
Still, taken by itself, “gender is a complicated indicator to look at,” says Price. Other variables, including things like ethnicity, geography, and religious belief, have to be controlled carefully to understand gender’s effect in a more sophisticated way.
For women, being more educated usually means more access to white-collar work with more set hours and a salary, versus hourly pay and a more erratic schedule, enabling giving. Having children in the household also increases the likelihood of giving, says Price. That doesn’t necessarily mean that single people or single parents can’t be giving people or are ineffective in their giving. Single parents especially give of their relational time.
Indeed, for all people, as a rule, those surveyed who struggled financially give what they have whenever they can, Price says. Those surveyed who were more well-to-do, in contrast, gave what they wanted to when they wanted to, and not because they feel their own needs or the needs of others acutely.
Ultimately, American Generosity and social-science research more broadly teach us that investing giving time always means planning. It turns out seasonal giving helps build a habit into our busy lives, and so it goes with volunteering. “The more planning ahead that people did, the more likely [they were] to actualize [their] giving,” Price says.
Tithing is a helpful concept as a way to plan giving, as is putting volunteering on the calendar throughout the year and building it into our routines. The amount of time, energy, and money that people give goes up if they routinize it, Price says, as with any other exercise or spiritual discipline.
Another huge predictor of giving is exposure to generosity as a child, says Price. Nothing really beats giving alongside others and talking about it. Indeed, one of the few relatively trustworthy predictors of not giving is not seeing it happen in one’s family when young.
Most people who participate in giving as kids, especially as volunteers, continue that habit as adults. It becomes part of their mental makeup in a powerful way. And while moms tend to lead the way with giving for their families, it’s even more effective when both parents give or when kids see other mentor figures giving.
I know that in my own life, I wouldn’t be a giving person (or at least an aspirational giving person) without the witness of my mom. I highly prioritize the giving of time, probably because she did.
In a December 1943 letter to his friend Arthur Greeves, C. S. Lewis noted, “The great thing, if one can, is to stop regarding all the unpleasant things as interruptions of one’s ‘own’ or ‘real’ life. The truth is of course that what one calls the interruptions are precisely one’s real life—the life God is sending one day by day.”
Giving one’s time up freely—or planning ahead to do so—is an acknowledgment that it’s not just our stuff that’s not our own, it’s “our” minutes, hours, days, months, and years. Devoting them to service of others is a good, godly, and healthy thing, and something I want to continue to cultivate. Let’s be like our moms and do the same.